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The Art and Science of Forgiveness
Here is my sermon, along with some prayers from our 10 Am September 11th remembrance liturgy. --mbb

Prayer of Illumination
How do we praise God on a day as difficult as this, when we may still be angry and sad, when we know that terrorists still lurk? Where do we find comfort? Our tradition tells us that we derive spiritual healing from God. We find it in words of comfort. We hear it in our songs of faith. We see it in our works of mercy and justice. And on this day, we listen for it in our scriptures.
Into our darkness send your Light, Eternal Spirit. Open our eyes that we may see you shining among us in the world today. Open our ears that we may hear you speak among all our faltering words and among the words of scripture, that, hearing and seeing, we may rise up and follow your Way to the glory of your holy name. Amen.

Call to Prayer
Occasionally during the daytime, there is great darkness. Sometimes this darkness is caused by a natural event like an eclipse, while at other times this daytime darkness is caused by humankind. In this beautiful world God created, we struggled to find the light in the days following September 11th. But in our darkness, we found moments of light ... light in the times we connected with each other, light in the times when we cared for each other, light in the times when we found humanity within the darkness. Like God, we, have an opportunity to create ... we can help God recreate the light we were given each and every day.

Blessed are You, O God, Creator of lights.

Into dark days of terror you blaze forth in Jesus the Christ who shows us the Way, the truth, and the life. He touched the hurt with healing, cuddled children, opened the eyes of the blind, unstopped deaf ears, and set the lame to leaping. Standing up to power, he was struck down so that we could be raised with him to new life and enter your good future now.

God, hear our prayers. Make us new.

Prayer of Remembrance
For those who went into danger:
We give thanks.
For those who remained behind with the infirm and injured:
We give thanks.
For those who thought of others first:
We give thanks.
For those who offered comfort to others:
We give thanks.
For those who lost their lives, as sufferers, as victims and as rescuers:
God, grant your peace.
For those who lost hope:
God, grant your peace.
For moments of the unknown:
Grant us courage.
In times of fear:
Grant us courage.
When called upon to stand for the rights of others:
Grant us courage.
When others call for our destruction:
Grant us courage.
When the enemies of freedom lash out:
Bless us with Your peace.
When the darkness of hatred descends:
Bless us with Your peace.
When we feel the urge to trample and destroy:
Bless us with Your peace.
When we look to the future of Your universe:
Bless us with Your peace.
And together we say:
Amen

Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how often should I forgive someone who sins against me? Seven times? Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.”
Matthew 18:21-22

Rage is literally all the rage today. A June, 2005 study estimated that roughly 1 in 20 people has had “intermittent explosive disorder” -- a form of destructive, uncontrolled anger. The numbers translate into many millions of circles of trembling misery and anxiety. Wives live in fear of their husbands' next tirade, and wonder if they dare bring children into such a violent world of wrath. Husbands find that sometimes the smallest provocation of their wives brings on a firestorm. Parents struggle to understand why a son puts his fist through things, kicks pets, or screams at siblings.

It’s easy to see the problems in others. But if we’re honest, we’ve all done it. At one time or another, someone says something innocent and we take it as a personal attack. Or we feel that a certain person is intentionally doing something to make us angry, and we seethe in resentment. We’ve all exploded irrationally at something minor and let the situation control us.

Making the choice to forgive can be a liberating practice -- one that can lead to a life filled with exquisite experiences. We must remember that forgiveness is possible because we have the ability to make choices. We have the choice to forgive or not to forgive and no one can force us to do either. If we want to forgive someone, no one can stop us no matter how poorly the offender may have acted.

On this anniversary of 9/11, I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness. It’s a foreign concept in the American landscape. In our age of partisan bickering and decreasing tolerance, does forgiveness have a role in our national dialogue? How about tolerance? How about living at peace? A recent poll of 2450 adults by the Public Religion Research Institute concludes the following:

Americans are evenly divided over whether the values of Islam are at odds with American values and way of life. Approximately two-thirds of Republicans, Americans who identify with the Tea Party movement, and Americans who most trust Fox News agree that the values of Islam are at odds with American values. A majority of Democrats, Independents, and those who most trust CNN or public television disagree. Nearly 6-in-10 white evangelical Protestants believe the values of Islam are at odds with American values, but majorities of Catholics, non-Christian religiously unaffiliated Americans, and religiously unaffiliated Americans disagree.

Americans employ a double standard when evaluating violence committed by self-identified Christians and Muslims. More than 8-in-10 Americans say that self-proclaimed Christians who commit acts of violence in the name of Christianity are not really Christians. In contrast, slightly less than half of Americans say that self-proclaimed Muslims who commit acts of violence in the name of Islam are not really Muslims.

The survey findings suggest that we are in the midst of a struggle over what growing religious, racial and ethnic diversity means for American politics and society, and that partisan and ideological polarization around these questions will make them difficult to resolve.

Have we forgiven what happened 10 years ago? Can we forgive? Should we forgive? What does this all mean? I don’t have answers when it comes to terrorism. I know Jesus’ radical call. I don’t know if I can do it. Here’s what I can talk about: How do we, on 9/11/11 think about our roles as healers and peacemakers. How do we create peace in our personal lives, in our families, in our communities and in the world. I think part of that journey begins with understanding forgiveness.

We talk about it a lot in church. We know Jesus wanted his followers to do it. I believe that when the gospels quote Jesus saying things like, “Forgive your enemies. Bless, and do not curse them,” that these are among some of the most authentic and original sayings of Jesus. It’s also the number one question I get from people who come to me looking for spiritual advice. “Pastor, how do I forgive?” People say to me, “Terrible things have happened to me. I know I should forgive those who hurt me, but I can’t. And then I feel guilty for not forgiving. What do I do?”

Forgiveness happens in stages. In the beginning, something happens that fills you with self justified anger. At some point in your life, you have been wounded and you are mad at and hurt by the person who wronged you. You blame the offending person for how you are feeling. You are certain that another’s actions cause your distress. You have no choice in the matter. You feel so injured that you are convinced it would not be right to forgive the offense. You are angry. You are in pain. But anger and pain don’t have to declare the final word.

The second step towards forgiveness emerges when, after feeling upset with someone for a while, you realize that the hurt and anger do not feel good to you. It may be impacting your emotional balance or your physical health. You may wish to repair the damage done to the relationship. You may begin to see the problem from the other person’s point of view. You may simply decide to let the problem go. In either case, after a while you are no longer done in by your anger. You forgive the person with whom you were angry.

The third stage of forgiveness comes after you have seen the results of forgiveness. You are now ready to work to either repair damaged relationships or let go of seeing the situation as a problem. You decide to forgive because you have had some practice with it and see the clear benefit in your life. This could emerge in a situation as simple as being cut off by another car on the highway or in a complex situation like being the victim of violence. At this stage of forgiveness you are aware that the length of time you experience a situation as a grievance is primarily up to you.

I have to confess to you, there are times when I’ve squandered my time being angry at people. I remember times I’ve had misunderstandings with others. Words were said. Feelings were hurt. I felt angry, hurt, and betrayed and I didn’t know what to do. I was disgusted with hypocrisy – my own included. I would try to avoid those who hurt me, but we would eventually see each other and I’d remember my injuries.

I can tell you exactly how things changed for me. I was reading a quote about hypocrisy by the famous activist and preacher William Sloane Coffin. He wrote: Of course we all pass ourselves off as something we are not, but not as anything we are not. Generally, we try to pass ourselves off as something that is special in our hearts and minds, something we yearn for, something beyond us. That’s rather touching.

Reading that quote changed my perspective. I realized that I’m human and I act to protect the wellbeing of myself and my family. Others are human, and they act to preserve their interests. I don’t need to harbor anger. I can make a different choice. I can forgive. And I hope that people can forgive me. I make mistakes. You make mistakes. If I have done things that anger you, I ask for your forgiveness. If I make decisions that you don’t understand or agree with, please forgive me. If I say or do something and your feelings are hurt, please forgive me. Let’s walk in the healing love and unity that can be the trademark of our congregation.

Thankfully, that’s not the end of the journey. There is still one more step to healing.

The fourth stage of forgiveness involves the choice to rarely if ever take offense in the first place. There is an ancient and well-kept secret to happiness that sages have known for centuries. They rarely talk about it, but they use it all the time, and it is fundamental to good mental health. This secret is called The Fine Art of Not Being Offended. In order to truly be a master of this art, one must be able to see that every statement, action and reaction of another human being is the sum result of one’s total life experience to date. In other words, the majority of people in our world say what they say and do what they do from their own set of fears, conclusions, defenses and attempts to survive. We all act out of self interest. When we understand that, the world can become more manageable.

Maybe you are now at a point in your life where you don’t want to waste your precious life in the discomfort caused by anger or hurt. You are ready to feel differently. You are able to forgive yourself, forgive others, forgive life, and forgive God.

Maybe you’ve learned that life is filled with incredible beauty and wonder and you are missing these experiences when you’re stuck in the remembrance of old hurts or disappointments.

Perhaps you realize that everyone, including you, operates primarily out of self-interest. In my self-interest, I will be annoyed by someone else’s expression of self-interest. If I can understand that this is an ordinary part of life, what is there to be upset about? If I understand that self-interest is my guiding principle, how can I not offer forgiveness to everyone, including myself for behaving that way?

In this sense, forgiveness is an art. It takes practice, discipline, and patience to get to a point where you desire not to get offended in the first place.

As it turns out, there is also some science to forgiveness. Forgiveness may be a choice and a discipline, but it also comes from a changed reality at a subconscious level of impulses. The subconscious is ruled by our most in-grained fears and desires, so if we can train our subconsciouses to crave reconciliation and lessen fear, then the world can be changed one thought at a time.

I’m going to keep this very basic, because that’s all I can understand. There is a part of the brain called the Cingulate Gyrus, Latin for “belt ridge”. The Cingulate is an evolved feature of the mammalian brain. It functions as a clearing house for the subconscious mind, deciding which primal instincts are appropriate for a given situation. Think of the Cingulate as the belt around your consciousness. It functions in the brain a little like a mediator. It helps restore balance between your thoughts and your feelings, between behaviors and emotions.

What’s this got to do with forgiveness? Research shows that activity increases in the Cingulate during moments of forgiveness. The brain is hardwired for forgiveness. Your brain is able to consider another person’s intentions, another person’s emotional state and the forgivability of another’s actions. If the brain wasn’t so crowded out with competing demands and opposing stories from the past, there would be more forgiveness because our brains would be free to do what they can do so well and so impersonally. We tend to think that forgiveness only benefits the person being forgiven. However research has found that forgiveness is good for the person forgiving as well. It lowers blood pressure, improves cardiovascular health and strengthens the immune system.

This is not to mention the social benefits. People who forgive tend to have less depression, longer lasting marriages and stronger social networks. With forgiveness, what goes around most definitely comes around.

The science and art of forgiveness is summed up like this: Loosen the belt of your consciousness. You can absorb pain and injustice without becoming a bitter person. You can come face to face with pain, your own and others, without becoming hostile. Forgiveness is good for you, and so much better than holding on to resentment. Forgiveness is also good for the world. Forgiveness is one of the powerful thoughts that change the world, beginning with your inner world. So forgive. Stop expecting the world to be perfect. Forgive seventy times seven times. Forgive because it’s good for others. Forgive because it’s good for you. Forgive because it’s part of your biological make-up. Forgive because God forgives you.

Sources:
• “'The Science and Spirit of Forgiveness " By Ian Lawton. February 24, 2008
• The Art and Science of Forgiveness by Frederic Luskin, Ph.D. Available online at http://www.cancersupportivecare.com/forgive.html



A Prayer
Say to yourself:
May I be at peace. May I be a lake of forgiveness. May I be truly happy.

Think of someone who has harmed you, or needs your forgiveness:
May you be at peace. May you be free from suffering. May you be free from pain. May you be happy.

Bring all the peoples of the world into your focus:
May the world be at peace. May it be free from suffering. May it be free from pain. May it be happy.

Finally, bring the Earth into your focus:
May she be at peace. May she be free from suffering. May she be free from pain. May she be happy.

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