Opening Words from Virginia Satir, People Making
“I am convinced that there are no genes to carry the feeling of worth. IT IS LEARNED.
“And the whole family is where it is learned…Feelings of worth can only flourish in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family… Since the feeling of worth has been learned, it can be unlearned, and something new can be learned in its place. The possibility for this learning lasts from birth to death, so it is never too late…there is always hope that your life can change because you can always learn new things.”
Sermon: On Forgiveness
The mid-term election is over — what a relief! We’re reminded of the story of a powerful senator who died suddenly and when he arrives in heaven he’s met by St. Peter at the gate.
“Welcome to Heaven,” says St. Peter. “Before you settle in, it seems there is a problem. We seldom see a high official around these parts, you see, so we are not sure what to do with you.” “No problem, just let me in,” says the senator.” Well, I’d like to, but I have orders from higher up. What we’ll do is have you spend one day in Hell and one in Heaven. Then you can choose where to spend eternity.” “Really, I’ve made up my mind. I want to be in Heaven,” he says. “I’m sorry but we have our rules.” And with that, St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to Hell.
“The doors open and he finds himself in the middle of a green golf course. In the distance is a club and standing in front of it are all his friends and other politicians who had worked with him, everyone is happy and in evening attire. They run to greet him, hug him, and reminisce about the good times they had while getting rich at the expense of the people. They play a friendly game of golf and then dine on lobster and caviar. Also present is the Devil, who really is a friendly guy who has a good time dancing and telling jokes. They are having such a good time that before he realizes it, it is time to go. Everyone gives him a big hug and waves while the elevator rises. The elevator goes up, up, up and the door reopens on Heaven where St. Peter is waiting for him. “Now, it is time to visit Heaven.”
“So 24 hours pass with the head of state joining a group of contented souls moving from cloud to cloud, playing the harp and singing. They have a good time and, before he realizes it, the 24 hours have gone by and St. Peter returns.
“Well then, you’ve spent a day in Hell and another in Heaven. Now choose your eternity.” He reflects a minute and the senator answers, “Well, I would never have said it, I mean Heaven had been delightful, but I think I would be better off in Hell.” So St. Peter escorts him to the elevator and he goes down, down, down to Hell.
“Now the doors of the elevator open and he is in the middle of a barren land covered with waste and garbage. He sees all his friends dressed in rags, picking up the trash and putting it in black bags. The Devil comes over to him and lays his arm on his neck. “I don’t understand,” stammers the senator. “Yesterday I was here and there was a golf course and club and we ate lobster and caviar and danced and had a great time. Now all there is is a wasteland full of garbage and my friends look miserable.”
“The Devil looks at him and says, “Yesterday we were campaigning. Today you voted for us!”
Recently I invited suggestions for sermon topics; the first person to respond asked me to talk about forgiveness.
Paul Tillich, one of the most effective theologians of the 20th century said: “Forgiveness is an answer, the divine answer, to the question implied in our existence. An answer is answer only for him who has asked, who is aware of the question.”
Who has not asked the question about forgiveness? Who is not aware of its complexities? What is forgiveness; where does it come from?
Forgiveness is an open-ended, intense and often painful question to those whose conscience is well-developed; those who have felt the sting of guilt, the wound of remorse and the shock of shame – which I assume includes all of us in this sanctuary today.
The sociopath doesn’t need to think about forgiveness, since there’s no guilt, no remorse, only an occasional sense of regret for having been found out.
The question of forgiveness ‘is implied in our existence,’ as Tillich puts it, because we are, by nature – by our human nature – endowed with a sense of right and wrong, with morality, with making ethical decisions every day.
Mark Twain said, “Man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.”
Virginia Satir said, “Feelings of worth can only flourish in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
We’ve all made mistakes – we’ve done and said things we wish we had not said or done, and we need to be reconciled with those we’ve offended.
Sometimes we don’t even know that we’ve offended someone. There have been occasions when I learned that I had offended someone without realizing it, never having been told. Sometimes I think I should begin every sermon by asking for forgiveness for past offences and for the one I’m about to inflict!
This sermon, for example, will fail to satisfy someone’s expectations, hopes or needs; it may insult your intelligence or sensitivities. Please forgive me, in advance.
At Barbara Fast’s service of installation last week a story from Sufi tradition was told. It’s the story of the man who never married. On his final day on earth he was asked why it was that he never married. He said, “I almost married one time. You see, I was searching for the perfect woman, and I had brief encounters with many women through the years. Early in life I loved a beautiful woman but couldn’t marry her because she was lacking the high intelligence that the perfect woman must have. Such an imperfection I could not live with. Then there was a very intelligent woman with whom I felt an intense sense of companion-ship, but she lacked the special beauty that the perfect woman must have. Over the years there were many women. Then, midway on my life journey I found a woman who was perfect in every way. I was so thrilled. We developed a very meaningful relationship, and I asked her to marry me. But she turned me down – she told me that she was looking for the perfect man!”
It sounds so obvious – there is no perfect person. Yet we often over-react to the other’s imperfections, as if we could reasonably expect or demand perfection.
This is one of the challenges of parenting, in an age when we parents, grandparents and step-parents feel less than adequate and suffer feelings of remorse for our imperfect parenting. This is illustrated poignantly in Sam Keen’s story of the peach-seed monkey from his book, To a Dancing God:
“Once upon a time when there were still Indians, Gypsies, bears, and bad men in the woods of Tennessee where I played and, more important still, there was no death, a promise was made to me. One endless summer afternoon my father sat in the eternal shade of a peach tree, carving on a seed he had picked up. With increasing excitement and covetousness I watched while, using a skill common to all omnipotent creators, he fashioned a small monkey out of the seed. All of my vagrant wishes and desires disciplined themselves and came to focus on that peach-seed monkey. If only I could have it, I would possess a treasure which could not be matched in the whole cosmopolitan town of Maryville! What status, what identity, I would achieve by owning such a curio! Finally I marshaled my nerve and asked if I might have the monkey when it was finished (on the sixth day of creation”) My father replied, “This one is for your mother, but I will carve you one some day.”
“Days passed, then weeks and, finally, years, and the someday on which I was to receive the monkey did not arrive. In truth, I forgot all about the peach-seed monkey. Life in ambience of my father was exciting, secure, and colorful. He did all of those things for his children a father can do, not the least of which was merely delighting in their existence. One of the lasting tokens I retained of the measure of his dignity and courage was the manner in which, with emphysema sapping his energy and eroding his future, he continued to wonder, to struggle, and to grow.
“In the pure air and dry heat of an Arizona afternoon on the summer before the death of God, my father and I sat under a juniper tree. I listened as he wrestled with the task of taking the measure of his success and failure in life. There came a moment of silence that cried out of testimony. Suddenly I remembered the peach-seed monkey, and I heard the right words coming from myself to fill the silence: “In all that is important you have never failed me. With one exception, you kept the promises you made to me — you never carved me that peach-seed monkey.”
“Not long after this conversation I received a small package in the mail. In it was a peach-seed monkey and a note which said: “Here is the monkey I promised you. You will notice that I broke one leg and had to repair it with glue. I am sorry I didn’t have time to carve a perfect one.”
“Two weeks later my father died. He died only at the end of his life.”
Human imperfection requires and the need for this strange, often illusive thing we call forgiveness. We’re all sorry that we don’t have time ‘to carve a perfect one.’
In his famous prayer, Jesus tells his disciples to pray by expressing appreciation for their daily bread that sustains their bodies, and by asking forgiveness to cleanse the spirit: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
In other words, we are forgiven in proportion to the degree to which we’re able to forgive. Forgiveness is a two-way street. The famous prayer of St. Francis of Assisi says, “It is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”
How does forgiveness happen? Certain things are needed. Telling someone helps – anyone can become confessor – someone you trust. Repentance or remorse is necessary – a genuine sense of regret and intention to avoid repeating that for which one feels regret. This confession, or telling, must be done with humility.
One of the teachings attributed to Muhammad says, “God forgives, but not without repentance.”
There’s a line in the Talmud that says, “God forgives sins committed against Him, but offenses against man must be forgiven by the injured person.”
The prayer attributed to Jesus acknowledges human imperfection. The spiritual or psycho-logically healthy life accepts the fact that imperfection is at the heart of what it means to be human, so forgiveness is central.
Someone said, “The supreme sin is not to be able to forgive yourself. (Waldo Frank, 1889-1967)
Holding on to self-loathing is the twin brother of holding on to resentment; it’s a form of self-indulgence; it’s a waste of time, but it’s more than that. It takes away from the quality of this life we’ve been given, and if life is a gift, as we say it is, then the gift should not be squandered.
You remember the story of the Prodigal Son. He squandered his inheritance, but he came to his senses, asked forgiveness and his father welcomed him home with open arms.
Home is a poignant, poetic term for self-acceptance; to feel at home with one’s self is a symptom of health; liberation.
That’s why Lincoln instructed the portrait artist to paint him ‘warts and all.’
We all know that we’re imperfect. We’re fallible. We’re limited. There’s something liberating about accepting our imperfections and turning them into opportunities for growth.
The central theme of Christianity is the assertion that Jesus was the Messiah, or Christ, whose death on the cross was God’s way of forgiving all believers. (It’s unclear whether Jesus volunteered for the assignment, or not. But we need not speculate.)
The idea of vicarious atonement turns in on itself – on the one hand it says, “Christ died for your sins, so your sins are forgiven…but only if you believe that your sins are the reason Christ had to die on the cross…so feel guilty while you feel relieved of your sin.” It’s about guilt feelings which are universal. So we have to find forgiveness – we have to do that for ourselves but we can’t do it by ourselves.
Whitman put it this way:
“No one can acquire for another – not one.
Not one can grow for another – not one.
The song is to the singer and comes back most to him
The teaching is to the teacher and comes back most to him,
The gift is to the giver and comes back most to him
The oration is to the orator, the acting is to the actor and actress, not to the audience,
And no man understands any greatness or goodness, but his own, or the indication of his own.”
To paraphrase, then, we could say, “Forgiveness is to the forgiver and comes back most to him, resentment is to the one who holds it, and comes back most to him.”
Look again at the story of that strange prophet, Jonah. It’s the story of a man who can’t forgive. It’s the story of a man who believes in justice, but not mercy.
It’s one of the shortest books of the Bible – just two pages. It’s one of the best-known books however.
The story says that Jonah hears the voice of God telling him to go to the sinful city of Nineveh to warn the inhabitants that he has been watching them and he’s angry, and he’s going to destroy the city unless they repent of their bad behavior.
Instead of going to Nineveh, Jonah hops on a boat headed in the opposite direction; so God sends a big storm and the captain of the floundering ship finds out that it’s Jonah’s fault that God sent the storm, so they toss him into the sea. God appoints a big fish to swallow up Jonah and from the belly of the beast Jonah expresses his regret that he didn’t carry out the original order.
Actually he’s simply expressing his regret about being in the belly of the beast and will promise anything to get out.
God gives him another chance — he has the big fish vomit Jonah onto the land. This time he goes to Nineveh and says, “Yet three days and God will destroy this city,” which is the shortest sermon by a prophet on record – Jonah was a reluctant prophet.
The people repent, thus avoiding punishment. Jonah is the most successful prophet, but he’s also the most disappointed of prophets because he didn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent and be saved — he wanted those sinners to suffer the consequences of their sinful ways.
The powerful little story ends with Jonah pouting – he’s very disappointed that the people of Nineveh got off the hook. He’s depressed – he believes in justice but not mercy.
The mythological story of Jonah is a powerful portrayal of the spiritual task of every person – the struggle we have with ourselves, and the struggle with have with others. It’s all about the struggle toward forgiveness.
The people of Nineveh represent our faults and failures. God represents the conscience, and the realization that we will be destroyed if we don’t change our ways, and the great relief we feel when forgiveness comes.
In the day-to-day interactions with one another, the dance as Margie called it at her installation, we sometimes step on one another’s toes, and we have to learn how to say, “Ouch.” We keep on dancing only if we’re able to move toward forgiveness.
Many acts of kindness and compassion are little silent prayers of forgiveness.
To forgive sounds more like a verb than it should – it sounds like something we do to the other person, when really it is much more passive than the verb suggestions. We discover forgiveness. It’s a gift. But we have to be receptive to it. Perhaps the verb is the decision to stop—to stopthe resentment, to stop allowing the anger to keep its clutches on us.
We discover forgiveness by listening to one we’ve offended, stop being defensive; then we can hear that they do not want to hurt us, they do not want us to continue to suffer, but they need to know that we’ve listened.
I do not believe that we should forgive too quickly, any more than we should try to hurry our grieving.
I do not believe we should tell someone that they ought to forgive those who have committed a heinous crime against them or a family member.
Those who do choose to forgive perpetrators of heinous crime are best off to be quiet about it and wait ten or twenty years before announcing their success at forgiveness; otherwise it puts pressure on victims and makes them feel all the worse for their refusal or inability to forgive, adding insult to the injury.
There’s something offensive with Oprah making a big show of someone forgiving her mother’s killer.
There’s something twisted about the evangelical minister (Ted Haggard) publicly forgiving the callboy who ‘outed’ him. It’s as if he’s saying, “Look at what a nice guy I am, so forgive me the same as I’ve forgiven him.”
There’s something unseemly about public displays of forgiveness. It is, after all, very personal, very private; it can’t be forced and shouldn’t be demanded.
Genuine forgiveness is a symptom of health and the means to attaining it. “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Alexander Pope summarized it nicely.
Virginia Satir’s words are worth repeating: “Feelings of worth can only flourish in an atmosphere where individual differences are appreciated, mistakes are tolerated, communication is open, and rules are flexible—the kind of atmosphere that is found in a nurturing family.”
We’re working to create that kind of atmosphere, right here, in this religious community. We hope to influence that kind of atmosphere in your home…and inside of you.
None of us has time to carve out a perfect peach seed monkey or a perfect life; we’re all patched up with a bit of glue here and there. We’re all imperfect.
In the story of Jonah the voice of God is that ‘still small voice’ within that tells us when we need to change…and Jonah’s struggle is ours…we often ‘go in the opposite direction’ and get swallowed up by Life before doing what we need to do.
There’s an e e cummings poem about a guy named Sam that says it nicely:
rain or hail
the best he kin
till they digged his hole
:sam was a man
stout as a bridge
rugged as a bear
slickern a weazel
how be you
(sun or snow)
gone into whaat
like all them kings
you read about
and on him sings
heart was big
as the world aint square
with room for the devil
and his angels too
what may be better
or what may be worse
and what may be clover
sam was a man
grinned his grin
done his chores
laid him down.
“Have compassion for everyone you meet, even if they don’t want it. What appears bad manners, an ill temper or cynicism is always a sign of things no ears have heard, no eyes have seen. You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.”
Miller Williams, “The Ways We Touch”