Expecting Error, Accepting Atonement

September 29, 2019

Rev. Douglas Taylor

We are at an anxious moment in the life of our congregation and in our country. There has been a lot of turmoil politically leading up to the recent announcement of the impeachment inquiry of the current US president. It has been a long road, and we are at the beginning of a new chapter politically. There has been a great deal of trouble these recent years for immigrants, transgender folks, people of color, and the poor in terms of the current administration’s policies and actions and tweets. Now is not an easy time to identify as a person on the margins in our country.

At the same time, there are positive changes at hand. There has been a rising-up of people at the margins, a calling out of harmful behaviors that used to go unnoticed and unchecked. With the surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, the #metoo movement, and other similar undertakings at play in our society, it is also becoming thankfully more difficult to be complacent and unaware of the harm happening to people traditionally at the margins. 

Perhaps you are thinking to yourself, “I did not think this was going to be one of his political sermons.” It’s not. I’m talking about forgiveness today. But I want us to be cognizant of our context. With atrocities and injustices piling up around us in the world and in our nation, it can be jarring to talk about ‘assuming best intentions’ when we bump up against each other. With all the trouble out there, many people don’t have much ‘benefit of the doubt’ left to give. With all I am reading and hearing from people in harm’s way, I am not feeling inclined to ‘just let it go’ or ‘just give ‘em another try.’

And here is my point: Where does that leave us for simpler interpersonal troubles. Where does that leave us when we are dealing with injuries and broken relationships among friends? It is as if the usual cushion of grace and mercy and ‘positive regard for all’ is too thin of late to account for even the smaller slights of our living.

What I’m saying is: I am worried for us. Because let us not forget, this community is in the midst of a lot of anxiety-producing work! We have raised a million dollars in pledging for our capital campaign. The bids are out to the contractors and we eagerly await the news of how much it will actually cost, with that looming worry that our one million dollars – so large and phenomenal a number – will prove insufficient for the amount of work. We are in that delicate ‘moment of unknowing.’ We can start dreaming up the worst scenarios with no reality to check our imaginations.

I am feeling anxious about all that is unknown and unresolved here in our church-life and in our country. I am normally a bastion of non-anxiousness. But friends, I am anxious. I’m anxious about the president. I’m anxious about climate change. I’m anxious about what the contractors are going to say about our renovation plans. I’m a little anxious.

This is the context in which I would speak of forgiveness. Because, the art of forgiveness is one of the ways to ease our anxiety. When we are anxious, we become like the proverbial powder keg. Forgiveness is a salve or balm for our daily living. And here I’m talking about the simplest form of forgiveness, almost more of ‘practice-level forgiveness’ than actual forgiveness. Did you know there are different levels, different kinds of forgiveness? There are. Let me tell you about this most simple form: Practice-level forgiveness.

Practice-level forgiveness is a simple form where we try it out, we work on it privately in low-risk settings. It looks like this: when I’m driving to work in the morning and another driver does something aggressive or annoying or stupid, I can respond with practice-level forgiveness. This is not the same as ignoring the other driver’s behavior or doing my meditative breathing. This is not ‘Oh, well’ or ‘whatever.’ It is about recognizing the other driver’s aggressive or annoying behavior and forgiving it. “That driver is in a hurry,” I might think. “That driver must be having a rough day.”

When I am having a rough day, I am more inclined to call aggressive and annoying drivers by rude names. I am more inclined to judge them harshly and assume things about their upbringing. I’m not proud of that. I’m just telling you what it can be like sometimes. It is healthier for me to offer practice-level forgiveness to that other driver.

I think about the other driver. I notice their driving behavior and – honestly – I make up a snap story about the other driver, maybe put myself in that other driver’s shoes and then make up a generous story about what is going on for them. Maybe they need to find a bathroom, fast. Maybe they are on their way to the hospital. Maybe they just got fired or they’re exhausted or they’re distracted by the news report on the radio.

Do you hear how that’s not the same as just ignoring an annoying driver? Ignoring it is to not think about the other driver, to just focus on your own driving. That’s a good thing to do. But it’s not forgiveness. This simple practice-level forgiveness is almost closer to what happens when I call other drivers rude names. Think about it. When I think ill of the other driver, I’m making a judgement about them. “That guy is a real jerk.” Well, in practice-level forgiveness I am also making a judgement about them. “That person must be having a rough day.” And I don’t really know what kind of day they’re having. Maybe they really are a jerk and I’m letting them off easy. But you know what – it doesn’t matter. My opinion about that other driver only affects me.

In her book Of Mess and Moxie, Jen Hatmaker shares something similar. She writes:

“Back when I was nurturing my anger, I’d spend a good half the day replaying, remembering words… I practiced comebacks … You know what the other person likely did that day? Ate a sandwich, answered some emails… I deferred my own peace and the only loss was mine.” (192-3)

And hear me: this is all practice-level forgiveness. If that aggressive or annoying driver hits my car, causes an accident, does actual harm, then we can talk about other levels of forgiveness. But at this point, the other driver is just one of a multitude of little annoyances on my way to work. Neither my scathing glare or my generous forgiveness make a wit of difference to the other driver except in how it may alter my driving behavior and my attitude about the day.

Ultimately, I am steering us to look at this in terms of how we interact with other people. In the practice-level of forgiveness, we are practicing meeting each other. We develop a habit of being open to the reality that everyone is going through something.

This is the beginning. It is about tempering my expectations of myself, of others, of life in general. If I can keep the reality of errors or imperfections in the equation when going through my day, it makes it easier to roll with it when things don’t go as expected, when people don’t behave as expected. Practice-level forgiveness, is really about tuning in to what’s going on for other people. It’s not exactly forgiveness. Not really. It’s just a warm-up to when it might be needed. You can think of it as empathy training. It’s the groundwork – learning to meet other people in the messy imperfections of our lives.

This is like that amazing poem by William Stafford “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” The poem, and this sermon so far, is not exactly about forgiveness so much as about meeting each other, about connecting. Stafford writes:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am

and I don’t know the kind of person you are

a pattern that others made may prevail in the world

and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,

a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break

sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood

storming out to play through the broken dike.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant’s tail,

but if one wanders the circus won’t find the park,

I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty

to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,

a remote important region in all who talk:

though we could fool each other, we should consider—

lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,

or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;

the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —

should be clear: the darkness around us is deep

In many ways, I contend, the work of actual, full-level forgiveness is about the repairing of relationship, about meeting each other across our mistakes and crimes. It about keeping the connection – the parade of our mutual life – despite the injuries. As we move on from the practice-level forgiveness, we weave our way into the harder work of actual forgiveness.

Now, when we get to this part, I imagine many of us begin to consider the injuries we’ve experienced. I am not unaware of the difficulty here. The realities of abuse and betrayal are fierce and immutable. Not all relationships should be reconciled or even repaired. Some of the wounds are bruises to our feelings and others are literal wounds to our bodies. Author and speaker Jen Hatmaker puts it succinctly: “There are degrees of harm, and not all pain is equal.” Hatmaker continues from there, writing: “Our paths to health vary, but we all have this common denominator as the foundation of healing: Forgiveness.” (p190)

To be clear, forgiveness and reconciliation often go together but they are not the same thing. As with the practice-level forgiveness and the example of my morning commute to work: my attitude of forgiveness does not necessarily mean there is any change or impact on the person I am forgiving. But it has a tremendous impact on me. This is true with the full-level forgiveness as well. It can lead to reconciliation but it does not need to. Forgiveness serves to heal you. That puts you in a position to be able to heal the relationship if that is the path your healing takes.

Jen Hatmaker, again from her book Of Mess and Moxie, articulates this with remarkable clarity. She writes:

“The work of forgiveness is so challenging—the actual work of it. The naming, grieving, empathizing, releasing. It’s like a death. A death of what we wanted, what we expected, what we’d hoped for, what we deserved and didn’t receive…. We don’t get to control other people or outcomes. I am as devastated about this as you.” (p193)

She uses the metaphor of death. “It is like a death,” she says. “A death of what we wanted, what we expected.” The Jack Kornfield reading (The Ancient Art of Forgiveness) offers the same metaphor. The woman in Kornfield’s story, you may recall, said she would kill the boy, but what she did was kill that murderer from within the boy. It’s like a death … of what we expected, of the way the story was supposed to be. And instead something else grew. Instead, an unexpected opening appeared, healing took root, atonement became possible.

And given the context of our living, it is good to allow the grace of healing and atonement to be within reach. Given the looming impeachment proceedings, the foreboding climate crisis, the lingering moments of unknowing at play for our congregation, and countless other concerns weighing on our anxious hearts, is it not good to take some time do some practice-level forgiveness or even full-blown forgiveness with the people in your life.

It is good because many of us have grown a little weary and worn of late. The healing you gain will aid you as you weave your way through the other anxieties of your day. The healing and atonement possible will help restore our spirits and return us to wholeness in our beautifully broken way. 

In a world without end,

May it be so.