Some years ago I did a series on the Lord’s Prayer. I think this prayer focuses on the heart of our faith and call to do justice, so I am sharing these thoughts again to help ground us in the trying times we are in.
Your progressive redneck preacher,
Here are the words of the Lord’s Prayer, as included in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship:
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
I had intended to move on to discuss temptation and our prayer for deliverance from it, but find today I must continue to reflect on the part of the Lord’s Prayer in which we pray “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us”. Last time I reflected on the idea that forgiveness – whether being forgiven or extending forgiveness –is a creative act. When we offer and accept forgiveness, we are choosing to change the way we view and tell the story of our lives. True forgiveness requires moving away from seeing our lives in such a way that the story we tell about ourselves is one of a powerless victim of others unable to shape the course of their lives or a powerless puppet of fate, impulses, and feelings not responsible for their own choices. To offer forgiveness is to recognize you have power, for to extend forgiveness requires recognizing that what has happened was a wrong, that you have a right to all the anger, pain, and frustration (even the desire for vengeance) being hurt produces. It is feeling that power, recognizing the resiliency and strength that got you through something bad. It is then recognizing your power to no longer let what another has done to you dictate the story of your life, and out of that embracing freedom to choose what person you become: one strong enough, kind enough, deep enough to not let another’s wrongdoing turn you into a bitter, hateful, vengeful person. For the difference between excusing another’s harm to you and truly forgiving them is true forgiveness includes acknowledging what has been done, acknowledging your right to demand the relationship end or the other make amends, and then finding the inner strength, power, and compassion on yourself and the one who wronged you to not let remain chained to what they have done to you. To forgive is to set yourself free, an ultimate act of soul liberation.
Similarly, to truly accept forgiveness involves acknowledging yourself as one who is not just powerless over what you have done – not a puppet of temptation, bodily urges, feelings, the pressure of society around you – but instead one with the strength, power, and wisdom to be able to do better even if better is not any more than when temptation, stress, or pressure hits seeking help. This is a part of why 12 step spirituality encourages people recovering from addiction or alcoholism to develop a list of those they have wronged, strive to make amends, and then to reach out to seek forgiveness if it is possible. Even if the relationship cannot be repaired (and often it can’t), seeking forgiveness in this way includes recognizing your own responsibility and is empowering to you while also freeing to the person to whom you admit this, as you give them permission to their pain.
I think it is important to note that one seeking forgiveness needs to recognize the person they have wronged has a right to be given time to process their anger, their hurt, their pain.
One of my favorite country songs is about the process from anger to forgiveness. It goes
‘Last night we went to bed not talking
Cause we already said toO much
I face the wall you faced the window
Bound and determined not to touch
‘We’ve been married 7 years now
Some days if feels like 21
I’m still mad at you this morning
Coffee’s ready if you want some
I’ve been up since 5
Thinking about me and you
And I’ve got to tell you
The conclusion I’ve come to
I’ll never leave, I’ll never stray
My love for you will never change
But I ain’t ready to make up or get around to that
I think I’m right I think your wrong
I’ll probably give in before long
Please don’t make me smile
I just want to be mad for awhile
‘For now you might as well forget it
Don’t run your fingers through my hair
Yeah that’s right I’m being stubborn
No I don’t want to go back upstairs
I’m going to leave for work
Without a goodbye kiss
But as I’m driving off
Just remember this
‘ I just want to be mad for awhile
I just want to be mad for awhile
I just want to be mad for awhile”
This song is kind of funny to many in romantic relationships. We’ve been there. We know the feeling.
But it’s true: for the process of forgiving another to be genuine, it often requires a time we sit with our emotions, pay attention to what they teach us, and come to terms with what has been wrong and what is needed to move forward. To come seeking to make peace with another without giving the space and time to process these feelings is to disrespect the integrity of their own soul. That soul work of facing into their pain, having space to move from feeling disrespected and steam-rolled to feeling empowered again is important. So if you are seeking to make peace, make sure you remember to give others that space. Also, if you have been wronged, don’t feel a need to apologize if you need more time to process things before moving to forgiveness. I have to believe the God who made our hearts and minds understands how painful and messy this all is, and knows that forgiveness is always a process never an event one comes to by a simple snap of the fingers.
Yet I also want to take a moment to talk about the parallel process that goes on in situations of trauma and loss. For when we go through a trauma or a deep loss, be it illness, the death of one we love, we also can become stuck feeling we are in stories about our lives being written without our consent or power. We can then as well find ourselves feeling powerless, out of control. We can emotionally shut down. We can freeze, stuck in place, not moving forward in our lives. In truth, to be stuck is not simply to stay in place for life always moves forward, even in the face of loss. It is to slide backwards ever more, like some leaf caught on the flowing river, every moment flowing further and further away from the stuff of life.
In loss and trauma we are invited through this prayer to do a similar work. To take time, yes, to sit with the anger, the pain, the abandonment. But again not let it define us. To begin to ask, little by little, in what way can I engage what is happening so I am not just a character whose story is being written by another, the blind pen of circumstance, but instead a co-author of this tale? How can I find ways to see my story differently, to capture a sense of where I have found and embraced glimmers of strength, resiliency, compassion, which pull me through? To capitalize on those and, even as I make space to face into my pain, to begin to become again a co-creator of my life?
In a way this is what the authors of Scripture do, isn’t it? Most of the Hebrew Scriptures were put together after the people of Judah faced the two traumas of the desolation of their sister nation, Israel, and then their mass deportation by Babylon. They lost their nation, their wealth, their freedom, and faced the possibility of losing all of who they are. They used the process of weaving their stories of faith together into a Scripture as a way of making sense of what had happened in a way that it gave them a sense of power, meaning, and direction. So much beauty, wisdom, and insight was birthed through this so that it not only gave them the power to continue as a people even to this day, but also so that it could inspire people of all nations, cultures, times, and walks of life with ageless wisdom that continues to speak and guide.
Similarly in the Christian Gospels we see where the early followers of Jesus went through an amazing trauma – seeing their found hauled away, beaten, killed, and buried as a common criminal. How must that story have looked like before they had the experience we remember at Easter which convinced them that in some surprising unexpected way this Jesus was not defeated but continued to live, move, and be active in their world? How must it have looked before they processed it, analyzed it?
We get glimmers of this in the early Easter stories, where the disciples huddle in fear behind locked doors, walk home dispirited spinning tales of a failed faith, or return to their old lives be they fishing or tax collecting.
The Easter and Pentecost experiences, however we understand them – whether literally resuscitation from death and speaking in tongues with fire dancing over head or as some kind of spiritual awakening to the ongoing presence of Jesus alive beyond death and to the ongoing presence of God within, in, and under us all – provided the new perspective which enabled them to process their grief, heal, and begin to move forward. They saw, viewed, and told the stories of their trauma differently.
In my own life this is a process I have gone through and continue to go through in the face of traumas of my childhood, the traumatic loss without warning of my late wife, losses of multiple friends who’ve passed, and other events in my life. For me, meditation, therapy, close friends I can talk to, and a practice of spiritual journaling have helped me begin to find ways to talk, think, and write about what I have gone through in ways where I begin to see and understand my story differently. I begin to experience my pain as a teacher that opens me up to new awareness, new compassion, and deeper faith & spirituality. I begin to see my own sources of resiliency.
A guide for me in this process, as I’ve said before, was the poet Rumi, a Muslim mystic who, on losing unexpectedly his friend and possibly romantic partner Shams, processes this grief and trauma through writing and mystical practice. Together these create some of the most moving and beautiful poetry the world has ever seen.
My challenge to you, the challenge I hear afresh to me in this prayer, is to find ways to move forward in your life, to become again co-creators with God of the stories of your life, so together you can pen a new tale, one that gathers up your experience of pain transforming it into a tale not just of death but death and resurrection, for this is what it means to be Easter people.
Your progressive redneck preacher,