The Rev. Janice Ford, Rector
The Church of the Reconciliation (Episcopal)
5 North Main Street, Webster, MA
Several years ago I saw a woman on TV talking about the death of her 14-year- old daughter who had been riding in a car with the woman’s best friend and daughter. The woman was apparently distracted by the radio and the chatter of the girls in the car. She ran a stop sign. There was a terrible collision, and the woman’s daughter was killed. Though injured, the driver and her daughter survived.
As we can all imagine, the mother’s grief was overwhelming at the loss of her daughter. Her friend was also inconsolable, and she accepted complete responsibility for what happened. She tried to apologize countless times, but the mother would not take her calls or see her. She barred the friend from her daughter’s funeral. She gave interviews on the TV news and other media saying that her now former friend was careless, irresponsible, and “a murderer.”
The mother spent the next five years or so a completely changed person. She became angry, bitter and difficult. At one point, she separated from her husband (though they later reconciled). No matter what she did, the mother could not find peace. A relative suggested that she talk with a minister he knew. At first, the mother declined because she did not consider herself a “religious” person. However, as those around her continued to encourage her to seek help, she eventually went to see the minister her cousin had suggested.
After several weeks of intense meetings, the minister told the woman, “If you want peace, if you want closure, if you want to be well, you have to forgive your friend for the death of your daughter.” At first, the woman refused. She said she felt that if she forgave her friend, it would somehow diminish the love she had for her daughter. The minister eventually helped her to see that it was precisely because she loved her daughter that she should forgive her friend. She would be honoring her daughter’s memory by demonstrating the virtue of forgiveness. The minister arranged for a meeting between the mother and her friend. After several hours of agonizing emotion, the two were reconciled. The mother was so transformed by what happened that she has dedicated her life to talking about the healing nature of forgiveness.
I doubt there are any among us that do not have the need to forgive the actions or inactions of another. The spouse who was unfaithful, the parent who was abusive, the child who was ungrateful, the co-worker who was dishonest, and the friend who gossiped are just a few of the situations that lead to a need for forgiveness. Sometimes we think that forgiving such egregious acts somehow makes us seem weak or foolish. However, the truth is that it takes more courage to forgive than it does to continue to hate.
Offering true forgiveness is completely liberating. It allows us to stop carrying the enormous burden of anger, frustration and bitterness. When we forgive someone for the harm they have done to us or someone we love, we are not surrendering to the actions of the other. Forgiveness does not mean acceptance of the act, nor does it mean that the offending person should not be held accountable for what they have done. Our criminal justice system is founded on that basic principle. If we hurt someone, we will have to make amends. However, once that debt is satisfied, either by payment of resources and/or time in jail, we say the person has “paid their debt to society.”
When we forgive, we are demonstrating the true courage it takes to step forward and say, “I despise what you did, but because I know I am not perfect either, I forgive you for doing it.” When we forgive others, we acknowledge our own imperfections as well. We are all capable of hurting another.
Unlike humans, God has the capacity to not only forgive, but to forget our sins as well. When we are truly repentant and come to God for forgiveness, God not only forgives us and tells us to “sin no more,” but also forgets our sin. There is nothing more that needs to be done to “pay our debt.” That is why, in the Episcopal Church, when the priest offers absolution to someone making their confession she or he concludes the Rite of Reconciliation with the words, “God has put away your sins.” What this means is that the sin is forgotten by God, and that what God seeks is the person’s promise not to repeat it, and to live a better life. It is not easy for us to forgive one another, and that is why, when we forgive, we are doing a truly heroic and blessed thing. We are literally doing something “of God.”