by J.P. Harris
Almost a year ago, our congregation affirmed, by over 80%, that we would become a member of the Reconciling Ministries Network. This meant that we would openly express, in an outward and visible way, that all are welcome in our congregation, including persons that identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. All meant all. Although that vote was inclusive of members of the LGBT community, it was not meant to be exclusively for them.
As Christians, we are in constant need to reconcile with God, other Christians, people of faith that are non-Christian, and our brothers and sisters in the secular world. Although I have been told recently I should not use the word reconcile because it is too “loaded,” I intend to use it more frequently. Now, more than ever, we all need to give true reconciliation a chance in a very deliberate way.
The past year has been very troubling for many in our congregation. There are still some that remain deeply hurt and distrustful of others. Many want to affix guilt or innocence to those involved, but the truth is, there were none guilty or guiltless, winners or losers. I surely made mistakes during the past year in my leadership role and in the years leading up to, what I will call, “the troubles”. I ask for your forgiveness, just as I forgive those who felt the need to say and do hurtful things.
On October 7, Paul Audley gave our church a wonderful sermon about stewardship, giving and forgiveness. He provided some keen insight to how hurtful and destructive bullying can be when conducted via anonymous letter writing.
For those that are unaware, our clergy were recently the victims of a personal attack via an anonymous letter. Even though the person(s) who wrote this anonymous letter are forgiven for their hurtful acts, they still are accountable for their actions and must understand how unacceptable and un-Christian their conduct was.
Because no one knows the author of an anonymous letter, it cannot be assumed they were in church to hear Paul’s outstanding stewardship message or his message of forgiveness. Therefore, I am including an excerpt of Paul’s message here in the hope that the author of that inappropriate and hurtful letter will take Paul’s message to heart.
We are human. We harbor grudges, anger, hurt and hold it within. We refuse to let go and we might even lash out hoping to hurt the person for whom we hold hatred. We put darkness around our hearts, our mood and even our health as we hold on to anger. We separate ourselves from love and God. Meanwhile the person we are angry with may be going about his or her life with great joy. And we get more angry. Is that how we want to live? Is there anything Christian in living in that state? There is a wonderful quote attributed to Buddha which says; ‘holding onto anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.’ It’s true that when we wallow in anger and hurt we make ourselves sick and separate ourselves from the kind of forgiveness and love God shares with us.
“Let’s be clear about this – forgiveness of another is not a release from responsibility or accountability. It is releasing the anger and hate that make it impossible to approach reconciliation, resolution and a return to a state of peace. Forgiveness is a gift to you, as well as to the one being forgiven.
“It is national anti-bullying month. And in this month I am reminded of my most difficult challenge to the teachings of God about the gift of forgiveness. My son and my family suffered terribly at the horrible impacts of sustained bullying. We were abandoned by the schools and fearful of losing our son. I am forever indebted and grateful to wonderful people who helped him and the rest of our family heal. Yesterday, I asked [my son] Stuart what he thought about forgiveness. He said, ‘Forgiving them was a gift to myself.’ It doesn’t let the bullies off the hook for their actions. But it removes the poison of anger and hate from the heart that prevents joy and love in your life.
“The issues of bullying and anger are not secular. Even in congregations of God and among followers of Jesus there are those who are living in darkness and seeking to exact revenge on others. This past week, one of the blogs for United Methodist Clergy was full of exchanges about how to deal with church members who seem bent on destroying their pastors. The common response was to follow the path Jesus showed by forgiving, and in the state of love that could only come with that forgiveness, pursuing a way to help the congregant heal the anger and hatred that created destructive behavior. These Christian bloggers were being defined by the extraordinary generosity of forgiveness.
“I struggled this week with this next part of the message. After many hours of prayer and consultation with wonderful and loving people – including my pastor when I was a youth – I changed part of the prepared sermon. I knew I would be talking about our church’s need to renew its commitment to forgiving ourselves and each other for our shortcomings and grievances. And that I would talk about the powerful change it could bring. We know our church has been through some tough times in recent months. And some natural feelings of anger and confusion had risen up for many members of our congregation. Some knew the lesson of forgiveness and passed through the time with grace and trust in God. Some stumbled and are working on letting go of bad feelings and distrust through thoughtful prayer and loving discourse. The challenge about today came as I was forced to reflect on those who have held on to their anger and grievances, and with the darkness that it creates, and have reached out to injure others. Our clergy were subjected to an anonymous, bullying, hateful and hurtful letter this week. It was born in the darkness of anger. Our clergy’s response was one of forgiveness – something I admire them greatly for. Still, we need to be accountable to each other for this type of behavior. We need to recognize that we have work to do. We need to recognize that the person who wrote the letter needs to be forgiven by us so our own hearts are working in the light of Christ to find reconciliation. Our clergy demonstrated that giving forgiveness is a gift to them that enables them to look for a way forward. To continue ministering to us in love. To continue to demonstrate the generosity of forgiveness.
“The writer and others still bound by anger need to give themselves the gift of forgiveness so the darkness can come off their hearts and enable a return to God’s love and light. Those in the grip of anger need to forgive those who are perceived as having done wrong. It is a gift to themselves - so that separation from the love of God can end for them. I cannot judge any one of us or where we stand in this scenario. I know I am commanded to forgive and to love. And you know what? It makes my life lighter. Even blessed. To tap into God’s promise of love and His generosity through forgiveness is to be able to expand my heart, be open to good things and the goodness of people. It opens my mind to look for a way forward.
“I prayed for guidance in giving this message. So many wonderful people responded. And on this World Communion Sunday, I was moved to restate the great gift of Communion. God is so generous. He gave us His son. God has forgiven us everything. God has given us the ultimate example of forgiveness and its power. Through God’s amazing, generous grace, we are reunited with Him. Through Jesus’ example, we are taught forgiveness: even on the cross, dying, ridiculed and tortured, Christ called on God to forgive His persecutors. And the price paid by Jesus for the forgiveness of all of us, obligates us to learn the gift of forgiveness, to make it part of our heart and soul, and to share it freely.”
Thank you, Paul, for your message of forgiveness and the need to move beyond from what was, to what is, and what is yet to come for our congregation. As we celebrate the one year anniversary of our becoming a Reconciling Congregation, let’s remember the true meaning of reconciliation: the new relationship between God and humanity effected by Christ’s redemptive work. Let us all be in a new relationship with God and with each other, working in concert to fulfill the great commission: to make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.