Marion Jones apologized, saying, “It is with a great amount of shame that I stand before you and tell you that I have betrayed your trust. You have a right to be angry with me. I have let you down, I have let my country down, I have let myself down.”
Senator Larry Craig took back his apology. He’s confused.
Some apologies are empty; even hypocritical. “If you were offended by something I said, I’m sorry.” What’s the implication? “Too bad you’re so sensitive; too bad you didn’t appreciate what I said…too bad you took offense…”
A new book was published this week: Amish Grace. It’s the story of how the Amish community responded when a crazed gunman killed five Amish children and injured five others last fall in a Nickel Mines, Pa., schoolhouse—he was angry with God, he said, for taking his daughter. Forgiveness is embedded in Amish society, as required by Biblical injunction.
Amish concept of forgiveness as unmerited gift. They make a distinction between forgiveness and pardon or reconciliation. Forgiveness relinquishes the right to vengeance, while pardon forfeits punishment altogether, and reconciliation restores the relationship of victim and offender or creates a new one.
Sometimes we forgive for our own sake. Sometimes we fail to forgive and it takes away from the quality of our own lives…
The Amish idea of forgiveness in this case is not so much about forgiving the man who murdered those children; it’s about their need to move on…to continue to live their lives without the poison of hatred eating away at them.
Two strong themes are woven throughout the Bible, both the Hebrew and Christian collection: condemnation and forgiveness. The reason these themes are so strong in the Bible is that they run so deep in the human experience. That, after all, is what makes the Bible such a lasting piece of literature, along with Shakespeare and the poets, and all the attempts of humans to express in words what it’s like to be a person…a fallible, struggling, mortal human.
In the Bible stories the sinners are condemned and the virtuous rewarded. Like life. The Bible says that the sins of one generation are visited on the next generations: ‘the sins of the fathers shall be visited on the children to the third and fourth generations.’
That certainly can be said for the sin of fouling our nest; the ecological mess our children will inherit. It can be said for the disaster in Iraq: the trillion-dollar bill will be ‘visited on the children to the third and fourth generations.’
I want to focus our attention on the more personal aspects of the concepts of sin and salvation, or condemnation and forgiveness.
To help us take another look I’ll read one of the most familiar stories attributed to Jesus—perhaps the essential story of forgiveness.
Jesus was often accused of socializing with sinners, so he responded to these accusations with stories, or parables. One of the most well-known stories is the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) You know the story, but listen again and see if you can discover something new.
“The journey of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, it is in seeing with new eyes.” Marcel Proust
“There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, “Father, give me my share of the estate.” So he divided his property between them. Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living.
”After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. When he came to his senses, he said, “How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.” So he got up and went to his father.
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fatted calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
“My son,” the father said, “you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” (Luke 15:11-32)
This is probably the best-known story of forgiveness. There’s more to it than forgiveness. You will notice, for example, that the prodigal son does not ask to be forgiven, implying that he’s not worthy of it. But he clearly conveyed his remorse; he’s ready to make it up by working as a servant.
What makes an apology effective?
Aaron Lazare wrote a book he titled On Apology, and he says that for an apology to be effective it must include the following ingredients: acknowledging the offense, an expression of genuine remorse, and an offer to make appropriate reparations, and a commitment to make changes in the future.
Those four ingredients may be stated explicitly, or, as in the story of the prodigal son, they may be implied by the one making apology, and inferred by the offended party; but they are necessary for an apology to be effective – to work.
The offended person must be ready to receive it; must be willing to listen and to respond. Until and unless there is an adequate apology and a willingness to hear it, there can be no forgiveness; there is only the ongoing brokenness.
Saying, “I’m sorry” isn’t enough “Sorrrreeee” doesn’t work; it may make matters worse.
The parable of the prodigal son is a goldmine–lots of little nuggets are tucked into it.
What, for example, is the father’s role in this story? Why in the world would a father give his younger son his inheritance. We must assume that this father knew his son and must have anticipated the prodigality. Was he setting it up? Was it a test?
And what about the older son? I mean, he had a good argument, didn’t he? After all, he stayed home and worked with his father: the story says, ‘meanwhile the older son was in the field.’ He comes home from a hard day’s work and sees a party going on, and finds out that this no-good brother of his is being is back and he’s being honored!
Notice that the older brother was not present when the apology was given. He didn’t hear his brother’s remorse; he didn’t hear him apologize.
The older brother is often criticized for not being willing to celebrate his brother’s return.
Shallow, quick forgiveness may be contrived. It may be more ‘giving in’ to pressure from the father than genuine forgiveness.
Forgiveness is complicated. It’s a change of heart. It’s not automatic; it can’t be forced from the outside or from the inside.
The father was an accomplice – he set the wheel in motion by giving his younger son his inheritance; now he’s demanding that the older son to come in and join the party, celebrating his brother’s return. What’s wrong with this picture?
I keep finding things in this story, and I change my mind about aspects of it.
Forgiveness is too complicated to be turned into the 11th commandment. It’s a delicate, complicated process.
Look again at the story: the father doesn’t say he forgives his son. He celebrates his son’s return. That’s different. After the party’s over they will need to get to work on the next chapter of their relationship. His quick forgiveness could have negative long-term effects. He could be enabling his son, as they say.
But maybe the story isn’t really about a father and two sons. Like a good myth we could see the story as an illustration of the life of one person – your life, or mine.
When this sermon was rattling around in my head, I had a meeting with a men’s support group and someone told a story about an experience with a guided meditation, which went something like this:
He said, we were told to get comfortable, to relax, and think of a place from our childhood where we felt safe and comfortable, a familiar place, perhaps out of doors. Then we were instructed to be in that place now and feel the comfort, the safety we felt as a child.
Then the guide said, ‘You are in this safe place and you can see someone approaching from a distance and as the person gets closer you finally realize that it is you, as a child, so you get up and welcome this child self to join you in this safe, comforting place and you speak to that child. What do you say?’
The man telling the story related that he new immediately; he embraced the child and said, “You’re okay, you’re a good person, you are really okay…”
Suddenly I got a new insight into the old story. I saw it as a man’s need to embrace his inner child, to come to terms with his life as he’s lived it up to that point.
The Christian interpretation usually suggests that the father is God the Father, who gave you free will to His children: we use our inheritance as we will. God the Father has unconditional love, so forgiveness is built in.
That theology never worked for me, at least it hasn’t worked in my adult life.
Up to this point I’ve seen the story as a very human and humanizing story about a father who has two sons and these sons are very different from one another. The father has to figure out how to be an effective parent to each of them–he can’t use the same parenting with both.
Like all real, down-to-earth parents, he makes mistakes, and feels the need for his children to forgive him, and he must always be ready to forgive his children, no matter what. I thought of it as a story about a father’s unconditional love and a young man’s growing up, moving through a stormy adolescence and then turning his life around after he hits bottom, so to speak.
My new insight turns the story in on itself; it’s still about growing up, moving through stages from child to adult. But I can see it as a story of one person, not three; the point when the adult self embraces the child self. ‘Unless you become as a child you cannot enter the kingdom.’
The two sons represent the two parts of every person; the part the world knows and accepts and even admires; and the other part, the shadow side, as Jung called it; the part that others don’t see, and we but vaguely apprehend ourselves. Think what it was like for Marion Jones to finally embrace the shadow she lived with and to return the medals – like giving up her identity.
The guided meditation takes us back to the child-self and puts us in a safe place from that early experience, and to see ourselves as we are now, in adulthood, and needing to embrace the child who we once were, and in some ways, the child who we carry in us in that deep place.
The adult needs to embrace the child and say, “You’re okay! Be yourself; don’t worry about it.”
If I were doing a guided meditation like the one my friend talked about I might have two children approach the adult so that he could face both sides of himself, perhaps embracing the one and not the other. I don’t know.
What I do know is that we’re all growing older and we’re not sure that we’re growing wiser. That’s one of the reasons we’re here today, hoping to be challenged, hoping to gain some new insight, hoping to forgive ourselves – to be relieved of all that old unresolved baggage that weighs us down.
Maturation is a life-long process, including the maturation of one’s faith or spiritual life.
At about nine years old we emerge from an immature, child-like, innocent faith to a more mature faith system. For example, we see the difference between the Santa Claus we’ve known and loved up to that point, the jolly, white-bearded, red-suited old man who puts presents under the tree and the spirit of Santa, the spirit of giving, and gradually we grow in our understanding of giving.
The spirit of Santa is what got those gifts under the tree after all. There is such a thing as religious maturity, or faith maturity, or maturity in your spiritual life.
To grow up, religiously, isn’t about ‘breaking the spell,’ as Daniel Dennett puts it, it’s about being able to distinguish between the literal and the mythological, and being able to see the deep truths in the myths. It’s easy to demythologize the world, that’s what the eight year old does; it’s another thing to re-mythologize the world so as to find a balance between the purely rational mind and the poetic, spiritual aspect of life.
To grow up religiously isn’t about the end of faith, as Sam Harris puts it—it’s about the end of immature, fear-based faith and growing into a faith system that differentiates between the need to know all the answers and the need to keep asking all the big questions, knowing full well that you don’t have the answers, and neither does anyone else; but you can keep digging.
To grow up religiously isn’t about declaring with Christopher Hitchins that God is not great, but to evolve a concept of God that is inclusive, that doesn’t blame God for natural disasters and man-made tragedies.
To grow up religiously isn’t about seeing God as a delusion as Richard Dawkins would have it, but as seeing God as a built-in process of growing a faith system that accepts all the insights of science without losing any of the innocence of that child who loves the world, who sees the miracles that are happening all over the place, every day, and who knows he doesn’t know it all.
Those who think they know it all are more deluded than those who choose to believe everything they’re told.
The critiques of Dennett, Harris, Hitchins and Dawkins are fine as far as they go, but they all tend to throw the baby out with the bath water. They go one step too far.
Religion is not going to go away. Religion is the life long process of making connections, and of reconnecting with other people, and reconnecting with our ever-changing self, and reconnecting with Nature, or God if you will.
Forgiveness is a key religious ingredient since it’s what allows us to feel reconnected; apologies are important – they have a religious dimension. When there’s a break in a relationship there needs to be a re-connection. That’s a religious experience.
When there’s a separation there must be a re-union, like the father embracing his lost son, or the man who is able to embrace his inner child and to acknowledge the shadow side he’s been keeping under cover.
Closing poem: A Note Left on the Door, Mary Oliver
There are these: the blue
skirts of the ocean walking in now, almost
to the edge of town,
and a thousand birds, in their incredible wings
which they think nothing of, crying out
that the day is long, the fish are plentiful.
And friends, being as kind as friends can be,
striving to lift the darkness.
Forgive me, Lord of honeysuckle, of trees,
of notebooks, of typewriters, of music,
that there are also these:
the lover, the singer, the poet
asleep in the shadows.