I woke up thinking about the act of forgiveness and the impact it has had in my life. It has completely changed who I am as a person.
When my father was dieing, I came to a point that I had to forgive him for the years of neglect and abuse. My sisters and I had flown in from around the country for the surgery to remove two tumors in his brain. The day before, my sister Paula and I found ourselves in a small Episcopal church in Evergreen, Colorado where my mom and dad were living. It had a retro 60’s interior, as if modernity hadn’t reached the mountains. But it also had a serene beauty, with carved wood and stained glass windows. It was a relief to slip into a pew near the back, two of about a dozen people in the small sanctuary.
It was a beautiful service and I was deeply moved — emotional and fearful for the next day and days to come. My dad had been meeting with each of us daughters to have the “last conversation” just in case he didn’t make it. I wasn’t ready for mine.
As is typical tradition in the Episcopal church, communion was offered. As took that long walk to the front and knelt there, struggling with my heavy heart, I was aware that my father could very well die in surgery. And I also knew that I could not, and in many ways would not, be able or ready to forgive him. As I wrestled internally between my hypocrisy and a need to be faithful to my experiences with my dad, I heard the voice of God saying: “Melody, forgive as you have been forgiven.” Even as I write those words I’m floored by the power of that moment.
Whether it actually was ‘the voice of God’ or my memory returning to the eternal truths of my childhood faith, I don’t know for sure and it’s certainly up for debate. But it mattered not at all to me, in that moment. I knew that it was true and that I had to respond. And in as much as I understood what that meant in my life, I acknowledged: “I cannot forgive him. But if you could help me…” And I experienced a miracle, my heart change in a moment! I was given a heart of absolution toward my father.
Let me be clear, I believe that he was still responsible for the things he had done and said, but my heart was freed of the anger and hurt that had consumed it for many, many years. At the very least, this experience allowed me to be “present” emotionally later, to bravely express my pain to my dad (which I had always been too afraid of him to do) and to hear him, as he stumbled through an apology. He asked me to forgive him for the hurt he had caused me over a lifetime. If I hadn’t forgiven him the day before I would not have been able to receive his apology or grant him what he needed.
It was a little topsy-turvy and upside down and backwards, but it is up there on the list of one of most amazing spiritual experiences I have ever had.
At some point we all find ourselves in the doghouse for something we have said or done. It is interesting to see a culture of public apology as it has developed today. It has become a natural next step by governments, politicians, cable newscasters, even ministers and it is easy to get cynical about such public apologies with our 24/7 public, cable-driven news cycle.
It is almost common place to mess up and need to apologize. My kids throw out “I’m sorry” like “please” and “thank you.’ I keep thinking we need to teach them this concept of forgiveness, but I don’t really know how. When I was a child my father used to make us apologize, even when weren’t sorry. Even when we truly felt we weren’t wrong. And then he’d make the other person say “I forgive you.” I cringe to think of it and refuse to do that to my children.
But what is the purpose of an apology? It is an admission of wrongdoing. An expression of regret for harm caused to another person by our actions or by our failure to act. Sometimes we even apologize to get something off our chest or make ourselves feel better. But people should apologize when they mess up and I want to help my kids understand this. But it can’t be forced if it is genuine.
Or can it? I think of the power it holds for people groups who have been mistreated and demand governments to extend apologies for historical injustices. The apology is called for and absolutely necessary. African-Americans deserved apology and reparations for two hundred years of slavery, Black South Africans for Apartheid, the Japanese Americans for the internment camps, Native Americans for stealing their land, imprisoning their people in Reservations, and demolishing their indigenous culture. The same for what has happened to indigenous peoples in Hawaii and many places around the globe. Many countries around the world, including the United States, have tried to make amends for past injustices by paying reparations, creating human rights tribunals and reconciliation commissions. This is all good and necessary.
But have those groups forgiven? I think on an individual level this is needs to happen. And sometimes as a public. The story of the Amish here in the states, who, three years ago, unconditionally and publicly forgave the gunman who slaughtered five of their little girls. It was an astonishing example of public forgiveness.
Until we can forgive we are condemned to remain victims. All of us have been wronged, in big ways and in smaller everyday ways, through out our lives. Until we can forgive those responsible we’ll be nagged by this sense of seeing ourselves as a victim.
That was certainly true for me with my father and I’m not done with the process of forgiving him as memory resurrects the past. I don’t know how long it will take, but I’ll walk every day of my life needing to forgive him fully and working toward it.
What does that mean for those of us offended and hurt by the Deadly Vipers book or more importantly, the ongoing work between the white Christian community and multi-ethnic communities.
What does this mean for women that have been hurt by the Church/organized religion or organizations or men that have treated them with inequality and sexism?
It’s very easy for victimization to be internalized, but only forgiveness can release us from that.
“There’s nothing to compare with the therapeutic effect of forgiveness. Forgiveness is a far more liberating experience, both for those who forgive and for those who are forgiven, than a mere apology can ever be. It is one of the most generous acts we ever perform.” — Hugh Mackay is a social researcher and author.
Apologies are powerful in their symbolism admission and contrition, but asking for forgiveness is more important. It can’t be forced, either the asking or the granting.
But still, often the apology is not extended and we are forced to wrestle with that topsy-turvy and upside down and backwards experience of needing to extend personal forgiveness, for our own welfare and healing, even before the apology has been extended. Listen up, friends, especially ladies, we may never get the apology. But we cannot live in anger, because it’s a virus.
Only forgiveness can heal us.
On a lighter note:
I did a little searching and oddly enough, found a website called http://www.perfectapology.com, which serves 50,000 visitors a month, offering advice on how to extend the perfect apology. Having grown up in a house where my dad was never wrong, and never once apologized for his behavior in my lifetime (except that amazing day in Colorado when he knew he was dieing.) Some people need it spelled out for them so here you go.
Apologizing is both an Art and a Science. The Art being the manner in which the apology is delivered while the Science is the recipe that forms the apology itself. This is “Science” or ingredient list that when combined produces the perfect apology.
A proper apology should always include the following:
- a detailed account of the situation
- acknowledgment of the hurt or damage done
- taking responsibility for the situation
- recognition of your role in the event
- a statement of regret
- asking for forgiveness
- a promise that it won’t happen again.
- a form of restitution whenever possible.