Friday I was scheduled to deliver a reflection on one of the seven last words of Christ. I was to give the first reflection, on Luke 23:34 Then Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing." It proved to be a reflection I needed to write, but it also proved to be another lesson in forgiveness, as I had to forgive myself for making a promise I could not keep. I could not stand long enough to give a 6 1/2 minute reflection, and it became apparent that someone else would have to step into my place.
My replacement called me and told me that reflecting on these particular words proved to be a blessing to her as well, and I later heard from others of the healing nature of her words. And so I accept that this was her time. And yet, I also, probably selfishly, feel that this was also my time to write these words, and they are not meant to be kept hidden, but were perhaps meant for this space instead, as a meditation on my own personal journey. So I post them here, today, so that they do not interfere with those Friday reflections, but so that they too may have life.
Reflections on Luke 23:34
Then Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing."
When I try to imagine Jesus on the cross, and the terrible pain and burdens of that day, it continually amazes me that Jesus’ first words were not “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me”, but were instead “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. Forgiveness is hard, and I’m not convinced, had it been me, that I could forgive first, without first railing and screaming at my fellow men and even God himself, before reconciling myself to forgiveness. Feeling abandoned is easy. Forgiveness is hard.
But that is the crux of what Jesus is teaching us, that forgiveness is paramount and that all other things must follow. Forgiveness must come first. It is not something we must reconcile ourselves to, but something we must embrace.
It seems I’ve been learning a lot of lessons about forgiveness. I learned to forgive my spouse for the raging and hurtful things he said when he was suffering from dementia. I had to forgive him the hundreds of times he threatened to divorce me, the times he called me names I could never repeat, the times he said I deserved every unkind word ever uttered, the times he said I was impossible, ungrateful and unworthy of love, the times he said I was lucky he put up with me. I knew in my head that it was the disease not the person, but forgiveness has to come from the heart, and my heart wasn’t ready. In learning to forgive him I also learned to forgive myself for being angry, for being hurt, for wanting to hurt back. In forgiving him I learned to forgive myself for suspecting that all those word were true, for believing I was unworthy and ungrateful. In forgiving him I also gave him a gift, whether he was aware of it or not, the gift of freedom from responsibility for my pain.
It doesn’t matter if someone hurts us intentionally or unintentionally, by holding on to that hurt we chain ourselves to the person who hurt us and those chains keep us both from grace. By forgiving we open a door that allows healing, a door that, by necessity swings both ways. For we cannot find grace as long as we are crippled by pain and the urge to hurt back, to suffer, to see ourselves as abused, damaged, ignored or unappreciated.
We are all human, and as such we are imperfect. We never know the true impact of what we do. We try to follow God’s will, we try to follow truth, with a whole heart. But we often fail. When we forgive, we are not saying that what was done was right, or that the pain does not exist, but we are breaking a dual burden. We free ourselves of the burden of our hurt and anger, and we free those who have harmed us from the burden of our pain. The surprising thing about forgiving others is that in doing so we learn to forgive ourselves for being less than the perfect people we could be and we learn to accept who we are and to love ourselves. Only then can we truly love others, knowing that not only are we imperfect, but they too are imperfect, that we are all imperfect together.
After my husband died I once again found myself questioning who I was and my place in the world. I found myself questioning how I came to be the person I am. Once again I found myself coming face to face with the need for forgiveness.
I grew up in a small town, and it was in many ways a wonderful place to grow up. I was fortunate to have a father who adored me and whom I adored. But being my father’s daughter was not always easy. He was a man who loved to challenge hypocrisy, a man who savored confronting those whom he saw as narrow-minded, or worse, ignorant, a man who often used intelligence as a weapon. I was a sensitive child who wanted everyone to love everyone else. I was also a child who had scoliosis and wore a back brace for 5 years. People are not always careful about what they say around children; I knew there were people in town who referred to my father as “that heathen” or worse, I knew there were people who believed that my scoliosis was God’s retribution for my father’s sins, I knew there were people who claimed to be my friends, but who actually pitied me and felt I should be thankful for their attentions. To protect myself from their pity, I hid behind intelligence and indifference and pretended that I didn’t care. Eventually I even convinced myself it was true.
But those pitying words had taken root somewhere in my heart and had blossomed into a deep-seated sense that beneath it all I really wasn’t worthy. That insecurity drove me to be fiercely independent; it drove me to excel because I always had to prove myself, not to my professors or employer or coworkers, but to myself. To that inner child no achievement was enough. And it was that inner child that made it so difficult for me to discount those raging words that dementia sometimes brings, that inner child that made me doubt myself. And this is where I truly learned that forgiveness is paramount. I needed to forgive that child who was hurt by the unkind words of others. I needed to forgive that child who lashed out at pity, that child who talked back, and challenged assumptions. I needed to forgive that child for hiding her secret hurts, and for rebuffing people who probably honestly meant well. I needed to forgive the woman who hid that angry child deep in her heart. And I needed to forgive those people who never meant to cause harm, but who were themselves doing the best they could with the beliefs and circumstances and events that shaped their own lives. In forgiving them, I suddenly found that I could love them, that they were, indeed, all just like me.
In learning to forgive we learn to love. I am still learning that lesson. But I see far more clearly that so much of what becomes hurtful in the world is often well intentioned. And truly we all need forgiveness, for we never know what we do.
photo courtesy navybluestripes photostream on flickr, here.