© Kathy Wallcave, 2012. All Rights Reserved.
Mission Peak Unitarian Universalist Congregation
August 19, 2012

Forgiveness is a subject matter that is addressed in all religions. It is also a subject that has become more noticed in the secular realm as well. I'll bet you didn't know it, but today we are going to learn about the miracle cure of forgiveness.

As stated in the book Dare To Forgive by psychiatrist Edward (Ned) Hallowell (which provided much of my source information today) "...forgiving is at least as good for you as losing weight, getting the right amount of sleep, taking supplemental vitamins or wearing seat belts." The health benefits of forgiveness may include "...a decrease in blood pressure, your resting heart rate may decrease, your immune system may get stronger, your susceptibility to a hear attack or a stroke may decrease, headaches and backaches and neck pain may abate, your need for medications may diminish, and even your sexual self may gain strength." If that is not a miracle cure, I don't know what is!

Dr. Hallowell also addresses the emotional benefits of forgiveness as a lifting of spirits. "It makes you feel happier and it clarifies your thinking. No longer must you carry a lodestone of anger and resentment." Or hurt, I would add.

In addition, Dr. Hallowell argues that organizations that practice forgiveness increase communication, decrease toxic emotions, and enhance the life and work of the organization, a good thing to remember as we do the work of our congregation.

So if learning to forgive ranks near the top of important steps we can take to improve our physical and emotional health, why is it so hard to do? It has been likened to performing surgery on yourself-not fun, and difficult.

Forgiveness is often seen as a weakness. Some people view forgiveness as a sign of giving in, to being a pushover, to leaving oneself open to be taken advantage of and to repeated hurt. As writer Cynthia Ozick wrote, "Forgiveness is pitiless. It forgets the victim. It negates the right of the victim to his own life. It blurs over suffering and death. It drowns the past."

So what do I mean when I use the word forgiveness? The word has Greek roots meaning "to set free." Several years ago when I was a member of the UU church in Hayward, I remembered a definition that the Rev Mark Belletini used that serves my purpose today, which I am paraphrasing. "Forgiveness means to set yourself free from the idea or hope that you can change the past."

So what don't I mean by forgiveness? It does not mean you cease to feel anger, hurt, or resentment. It does not mean you refrain from wanting justice or even revenge. It is not a final state but a process, with road blocks, regressions, progressions and reoccurrences. Forgiveness does not mean allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to repeated behavior. Therefore, forgiveness may involve removing ourselves from a person or group, even to the extent of a restraining order. Forgiveness can only begin when a person feels safe.

Let me take a step back. When something has been done to us, our first feelings are primal reactions which may include some of the following: anger, hurt, a wish for revenge, bitterness, a loss of trust, shock, disappointment. Forgiveness is a process that you choose to turn your back on those negative feelings, to refuse to act on them, to deny those feelings the power to rule your life. Forgiveness serves as a bridge which allows you to take those negative feelings and convert them into positive outcomes" growth, wisdom, peace, understanding, a relief of suffering.

There are many kinds of forgiveness. One of the hardest kinds is self-forgiveness. When I was about 27, my friend Teresa got married in Ames IA. I flew back for the wedding and it wasn't until later that I learned my good friend Becky, who was not at the wedding, felt hurt that I hadn't called when I was in town. In all the commotion of the wedding, I had completely forgotten Becky. I figuratively kicked myself: "What a lousy friend I am. How could I have been so thoughtless?" I had to forgive myself for my oversight and offer a sincere apology to Becky. She forgave me and we are still friends. When you focus only on your inability to forgive yourself, your focus remains on yourself and on not others. It can prevent you from turning the negative feelings of guilt and remorse into a course for repairing any damage or doing good in the world.

What if your transgression is more serious? Some people are unable to forgive themselves and are unable to get help. They are afraid to look past themselves to get the help they need because they are afraid others will scorn or judge them. If you find yourself in a similar position, it is vital that you get help from someone you trust or a professional. When we go outside to share our story, most people will be supportive because we will have touched on a universal nerve. We have all made transgressions and have needed forgiveness. As Dr. Hallowell states, Our need to be forgiven feeds our capacity to forgive, and our capacity to forgive derives from our need to be forgiven. When we talk about forgiveness we usually focus on one side or the other: granting forgiveness or seeking it. But, as I see it, each of those sides is a door into the same house, the house of forgiveness. When you grant forgiveness, you go through one door; when you seek it, you go through another. Both doors lead to forgiveness. I love that metaphor.

Another type of forgiveness is to forgive others. There are what we might call sub categories: forgiveness when someone asks for it, forgiveness when the other person does not ask for it or even acknowledge it, forgiveness when you don't know who wronged you, such as if your home was broken into. Sometimes forgiveness is easy and comes naturally, most often when the transgression is of minor consequence. What do you do, however, when the transgression is of a serious nature? What do you do if you find yourself unable to get beyond the initial feelings of anger, revenge, hurt, betrayal, resentment, despair, and more? Is forgiveness something you can learn?

There are many sources of information on how one can go about finding forgiveness when one is stuck. Dr. Hallowell describes forgiveness as a process of four acts. He calls them acts because during many crises, the act of forgiving is a conscious decision a person has made. The first act is the Pain/Hurt Act. During the pain/hurt act something has happened and we experience those initial primal feelings such as anger, hurt, pain, despair, rage, etc. Depending on the transgression, these feelings may include thoughts of revenge or even murder. Usually these emotions are intense and overwhelming. Some people withdraw into themselves and others want to talk to people about it. It is okay to withdraw inside for a time, but the danger is in isolating oneself, in sweeping emotions under the rug, or to give someone the "silent treatment." Withdrawal is healthy only when it is used to give us time to regain emotional equilibrium.

Back to the Pain/Hurt act. During this time it is important NOT to act on any of those negative and sometimes conflicting emotions. I remember once writing an email when I was angry. I felt so good when I pushed the send button and in my mind I could literally hear the words, "So there." Needless to say, it was shortly afterwards that I began to regret sending the email and my "So there" thoughts turned to "That really didn't do any good and I think I actually feel a little worse about it."

The most important thing you can do in this initial stage is to stay connected to people. Talk to those who you trust, who offer you positive support, not those who may fuel your feelings of anger or revenge. Stay connected to the activities that will help you heal your emotional wounds, whether it is hiking, listening to music, sunning at a beach, reading, meditation, prayer, or going to your favorite religious organization such as MPUUC!

The second act - or phase, as I prefer to call it - is the Reliving/Reflecting Phase. Removing ourselves from the cause of our intense negative emotions does not mean we no longer experience them. It is natural to relive the event/events. We may be able to close our eyes and allow ourselves to set the scene, to see facial expressions, to replay it as a movie in our mind. As we relive the transgression and feelings resurface, we must acknowledge these feelings but as they subside, Dr. Hallowell suggests we ask ourselves this crucial question, which he believes is the most important step in the forgiveness process, "What do I want this pain to turn into?" He suggests that to answer this question, we turn to our values and belief systems to guide us. If we as UUs embrace the principles of the inherent worth and dignity of every person, as well as the interdependent web of existence, if we believe in trying to leave the world better than we received it, then we need to turn our back on revenge, hatred, and cynicism. Part of this step involves acknowledging grief. Something has happened. Something has been lost. No matter how much we would like, we cannot change the past. That is why grief and forgiveness are intertwined. Grief allows us to move on in the forgiveness process. Sometimes we are still stuck in our negative emotions. Dr. Hallowell calls those "hooks" that are keeping us there. We need to deeply examine what is keeping us hooked. Issues of control, trust, self-confidence, pride, jealousy, and stubbornness, are just a few underlying causes of hooks. Perhaps listening to our still small voice, as we sang earlier this morning, can help us find the root cause.

Act three is called Working It Out, which is in essence to flatten out the hook that is keeping us in our negative emotional state. Numerous activities can help us flatten the hook and allow us to move forward. The most important activity if the transgression is severe is to seek help from a trusted professional. Other methods include prayer, meditation, journaling, participating in activities that replenish us. Anther method is to use insight to determine why a person is acting this way. If my boss was driving me crazy with micromanagement, it might help to step back and see if I can figure out the source. Perhaps my boss' mother is terminally ill and feelings of loss of control are being compensated for by over control in the work place. Perhaps compassion will serve me to help me forgive my boss or, even better, it may enable me to take action that will relieve my boss of some stress. Other ways to remove any hooks are to practice gratitude, visualize the good in our lives, to look to the future and live well. According to poet George Herbert, "Living well is the best revenge."

One method that has helped me often is to use empathy and remember the times I have needed forgiveness. I must confess that I have Type A driving tendencies. Maybe I'm not the only one of those types here this morning! I work on it daily. I used to have choice words for people whose driving habits were not as good as mine. I remember once at a 4-way stop, another car started proceeded even though I was supposed to go next. At first I felt indignant anger but I quickly remembered times when I haven't seen a car or made a mistake. I took a deep breath to let go of my anger. As the car proceeded, the driver gave me a "whoops, I'm sorry" look and waved, exactly as I have done at times when my driving was not exemplary. I smiled and waved back. It was a minor incident but I felt better about my response, and now I always try now to be forgiving while driving, which is still a work in progress. So the next time someone cuts you off, instead of "What a jerk" think "That poor person must have a lot going on mentally to be driving like that." And stay far away from that car!

Another method is to not take things personally, which is especially helpful when transgressions are more minor. We do not condone the action and may work to prevent a reoccurrence, but we do not internalize the negative emotions, allowing it to poison us. I know that I tend to be a little oversensitive. I use insight and reflection to overcome it. I also use the phrase my mentor teacher told me, "It's not about you" and I see if that applies. If I find myself feeling hurt by someone's actions or inactions, I ask myself if I am being too sensitive. Maybe that person was preoccupied, just as I was when I forgot to call my friend Becky.

So now that we have flattened the hook, Act 4 is Taking Stock and Moving Forward. Even though the hooks have flattened, those negative feelings will likely resurface. It reminds me how my grief over my parents' deaths sometimes resurfaces. I must face it, rather than suppress it and I have noticed that the frequency and intensity have decreased over the years. So when our negative, gut feelings resurface, we can renounce and turn away from those destructive feelings using those methods I previously described (and perhaps you have some of your own that I have not mentioned). During this act we must remember the hard work we have undertaken to turn primal, poisonous feelings into opportunities for reflection and growth. We should celebrate the strength we have found. Some people have even been inspired to help others.

In preparing for my sermon, I came across Journey of Hope, an organization led by murder victim family members. According to their website, "Our speakers share their stories about the process of healing through reconciliation and promote restorative justice, a new vision for the criminal justice system. It stresses the need for offender accountability and the opportunity for the offender to make things right with the victim as much as possible. Restorative justice processes allow for greater healing in the lives of victims and offenders, and peace in communities, after crimes are committed."

A couple weeks ago, my UU friend Janice, not knowing I was giving a sermon about forgiveness, mentioned she attended a symposium on "Crime, Punishment and the Common Good in California" hosted by the California Catholic Conference. They gathered " discuss how to transform society's response to crime from a paradigm of retribution and punishment toward one of rehabilitation, restoration and reconciliation." They also sought " focus on specific calls to actions for all these members of the community." Janice said at each conference table there were offenders who had murdered, family members of people in prison, victims and/or their families, clergy and prison officials. The speakers were representatives of each of the groups.

As stated in their website, is an outreach of the California Catholic Conference. The purpose of is to offer a place of compassion and assistance, resources and services and educational information for anyone who is affected by crime - victims of crime, offenders and their families, corrections staff, chaplains, criminal justice system employees and management, and advocates for restorative justice.

Clearly for some victims, they have been able to move beyond their anger, hatred, and revenge to work towards a world that embraces important values to them- accountability, compassion, assistance, communication and understanding. I think these family members honor the lives of their loved ones by living full productive lives. I feel humbled by these efforts and try to remember to keep my frustrations in perspective.

So far we have examined the process of forgiving but have not looked at the other door of the house of forgiveness, the asking of forgiveness. We could do another sermon on the asking of forgiveness so let me briefly say that there are times we want to ask forgiveness. We may resist, however, out of pride, fear of being rebuffed, or feeling we don't deserve forgiveness. If we remember that the granting of forgiveness can help the forgiver as much as the "forgivee" then we must make the effort. As I mentioned my mantra earlier, "It's not about me." I think the most important gift to give the forgiver is to let them see what we have learned from the experience, along with a sincere knowledge of our self-reflection and awareness to handle things differently if similar conditions occur. If the other person rejects our efforts at reconciliation, we will at least know that we tried to act morally and to provide an avenue for the other person to move beyond the transgression. We can learn from our mistakes and remember for the future when someone asks for our forgiveness.

In my newsletter description of my sermon, I asked if people with happier dispositions are more easily able to forgive. It may be, but it is not a given. I also asked if forgiving makes us have happier dispositions. Well, it seems that forgiveness certainly does make us happier than if we did not practice forgiveness. We are able to convert negative feelings into a process that allows for reflection and growth.

In conclusion, I would like to tell the story of Marietta Jaeger, a member of Journey of Hope and the mother of a 7-year old girl, Susie, who was kidnapped and murdered. When they first discovered the disappearance, Marietta wrote "...I said out loud to my husband, 'Even if the kidnapper were to bring Susie back, alive and well, this very moment, I could still kill him for what he has done to my family.' Almost as soon as the words were uttered - however human a response as their sentiment was, I knew that to give myself to that ugly mind-set would violate the principles and value system I held....Hatred was not healthy....still...I had every right to avenge whatever happened to her. And so, round and round I went, wrestling with the worst and best in myself. Finally, because I'd been well taught to always reach for the highest moral ground, I surrendered. I made a decision to forgive this person, whoever he was."

Reaching forgiveness took more than just the desire to forgive. As she wrote, "I've heard people say that forgiveness is for wimps. Well, I say then that they must never have tried it. Forgiveness is hard work. It demands diligent self-discipline, constant corralling of our basest instincts, custody of the tongue, and a steadfast refusal not to get caught up in the mean-spiritedness of our times. It doesn't mean we forget, we condone, or we resolve responsibility. It does mean that we let go of that hate, that we try to separate the loss and the cost from the recompense or punishment we deem is due." Marietta concludes, "In the 20 years since losing my daughter, I have been working with victims and their families, and my experience has been consistently confirmed. Victim families have every right initially to the normal valid human response of rage, but those persons who retain a vindictive mind-set ultimately give the offender another victim. Embittered, tormented, enslaved by the past, their quality of life is diminished. However justified, our unforgiveness undoes us. Anger, hatred, resentment, bitterness, revenge-they are death-dealing spirits, and they will 'take our lives' on some level as surely Susie's life was taken. I believe the only way we can be whole, healthy happy persons is to learn to forgive."

These are heavy words indeed and I hope you will forgive me (no pun intended) if you feel I have dwelled on negative ideas. Rather then remember any distressing stories and negative emotions, I would like you to remember this; as human beings, we have the ability and opportunity to convert pain into positive outcomes. I propose that just as we are encouraged to live in a state of gratitude, let us live in a state of forgiveness, practicing daily acts of forgiveness. In doing so, we use minor annoyances to exercise our forgiveness muscles, which we will undoubtedly be called upon to use when the stakes are higher. In spreading the healing powers of forgiveness, we will be practicing our UU values of working for peace in the world and in our daily interactions. As we sang in our opening hymn, we can have peace like a river and joy like a fountain. So be it. Amen.

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