We had some teaching on forgiveness this week. The ‘we’ is my church, a happy assortment of ages and histories and temperaments, not at all uniform, some of us quite conventional, some less so, and some quite…well… erm…. individual. So, don’t, please think that this teaching involved a grey haired stern old man shaking his finger at us, as we all sat straight-backed and demure, eyes cast down. Do you think church is like that? Church ain’t like that. Our Pastor ain’t like that. The message ain’t like that. And we don’t go into the church building right now so there ain’t even no pews to keep us upright. I listened to the talk on forgiveness at my desk, knitting, and with a cup of coffee. Even when we’re in church we don’t do the demure thing. We are family, and families are full of nonsense and love and life. And stuff.
I called it ‘teaching’ because I don’t like the word ‘sermon’. We don’t really have a weekly sermon. We have a grace-filled, interesting, informative, instructive, encouraging and challenging discourse. Bit of a mouthful, but all those things are different.. a thing can be informative without being interesting (cast your mind back to Maths lessons) and instructive without being encouraging (Maths again). So, for brevity’s sake, we’ll stick with ‘teaching’ although it’s much more personal, focussed, gracious than a lesson. And the great thing is, it’s Biblical.
Anyway, the point is, I didn’t need the stuff on forgiveness. Me? Listen, love, I have trouble with a load of flaws and failings but I don’t have any trouble with forgiveness.
Hmmm. But gradually as the days dwindled past at this new lock-down pace, I realised that I still had some stuff to learn after all, and I’ve had to think again about my so-amazing gift of forgiveness. I have forgiven. I know that for sure. And for me, by God’s grace, forgiveness came easily. I think it also came easily because emotionally I’m quite lazy. “Do you want to dwell on past wrongs, Luce?” “Nah, I’d rather have a cake, thanks.” But there are layers, I’ve learned this week, to forgiveness. You can forgive, and still not quite be filled with love for the person forgiven. Yes, you forgive, because that’s the choice you’ve made, but I learned this week that even when that choice has been made, the act of forgiveness can grow deeper, more generous, more loving. It can become joyful.
This week I’ve learned that digging deeper into forgiveness is a delight. That explored forgiveness restores lost love. That if we truly understand our own need for forgiveness, offence vanishes and hurt diminishes to the vanishing point. Part of our message on how to forgive others was that forgiveness is not forgetting, but it’s accepting the consequences of another’s sin. Or you could say ‘another’s actions’. I see now that the consequences of my parents actions have affected my life and I completely and happily, and openly welcome those consequences. Hah! It sounds strange, doesn’t it? But I do.
I accept without rancour that I find it difficult to enter someone’s house, to spend time with a couple, to have the confidence to say aloud what I think (I do it in writing!). I often feel worthless and ugly so that I need to escape when eyes meet mine, feeling that my presence in a roomful of people ruins it for all of them. That I am loathsome. I accept these as consequences of my parent’s behaviour. I don’t bow down to them, or agree with these things, because I know for absolute sure that they’re not true, that it was wrong of them, but I also know now to say “That’s OK. That’s life. It’s what it did to them as well as to me. It didn’t come out of nowhere, their lives had led them to this point.”
And I’m far far far from the only one. Loads of people of my age were brought up by parents scarred by war and by poverty. 75 years ago today the Second World War ended in Europe. Think of the consequences of that war! The consequences of that war, that sin, the Nazi regime, are still felt all over the world. They have damaged generations. Today is a day for remembering and for forgiving. My generation, coming up to 70 and 80, grew up with parents who had been through 6 years of hell. There are consequences to sin. They had to live with them, and sometimes they passed those consequences down to us. And we need to forgive.
My Dad was trained for the priesthood, a seminarian who joined the Army, who was evacuated at Dunkirk, a soldier who carried a poetry book wherever he went, a young man who later witnessed the brutality of the Mau-mau, a father who didn’t see any of his children until they were already walking, who lost his first wife to cancer, and two sons in infancy… what right do I – battered old me – have to withhold my forgiveness from this man? None. I’ve always understood that.
But have I felt the same way about my stepmother? No, hand on heart, I have struggled to love her. I realise now that this is because she was a respectable and successful woman, and I thought as a child that she was the cat’s whiskers. Then I discovered that she was a martinet, a snob, cold and demanding, and I saw only her flaws and was hurt by them, and I was so busy being hurt that I didn’t look for the causes. I went to her at 8 years old, desperate for a Mam, and I found her instead. I never looked behind that disappointment to discover why she was as she was. Yesterday, for the first time in years, I remembered her father, Mr Donoghue, a stern and aggressively correct Edwardian. She served him as I served her. She was the consequence of his lovelessness and I was the consequence of hers. And so the sins of the fathers are passed to the sons and daughters. And yesterday, I softened. Into the forgiveness came love. Acceptance. Wow. I accept the consequences of my stepmother’s actions. And I ask forgiveness for not loving her.
Oh, blimey. What does that do? That sends me right back to the cross. A stunning thought; who accepted the consequence of my sin? Jesus. Who looks beyond my sin to my heart? Who forgives it so wholly that it no longer exists? There is no hurt or harm, no consequence left. It’s all there, on the cross. He doesn’t look at my flaws and failings, my sins, he just loves me.
It gives a whole new layer of meaning and passion to the simple words ‘I am forgiven’.