Reconciliation and Forgiveness
March 12 & 13, 2011
Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church, Dillon, Colorado
The gospel today describes Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the wilderness and how Jesus remained righteous even when tempted by all of the power in the world. Since I give in to temptation frequently, drive too fast, get impatient, eat too much….I don’t have much experience with being righteous like Jesus so I can’t speak to the gospel and withstanding temptation. However, I do have experience with what happens when I give in to temptation and need to seek forgiveness, which is what the Psalm is about. When Pastor asked me to deliver some sort of succession of words in the sermon time slot I was flattered to be asked as I enjoyed standing here previously. Many years ago when I was on the lecture circuit, teaching parents of emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children parenting techniques that might be more effective than some they were using, my kids were agog. One said, “People are paying to hear you speak?!?!?! We would pay you to be quiet!!!!”
The story behind today’s Psalm, Psalm 32, is found in 2 Samuel, chapters 11 & 12 and makes it clear that David would also have paid mightily to keep the prophet Nathan quiet. David had seen Bathsheba bathing on the roof next door to the palace and he decided he liked what he saw and sent for her, “laying with her”, as the Bible says. She went home and discovered she was pregnant. The problem was that Bathsheba was the wife of Uriah, an officer in his army. When Uriah returned from the battlefield David told him to go rest himself at his house, in an attempt to have Uriah also lay with Bathsheba and believe the baby was his. Uriah refused to go home and instead, in honor to the Ark of the Covenant and his duplicitous king, he slept outside of David’s palace door. David invited him in, got him drunk, and, again, told him to go home. Uriah still refused to go home. David was getting desperate. It would all make for a funny story if it did not end so tragically. David, then wrote a note to Joab, a general in the field fighting the Syrians, and gave it to Uriah to carry back to his post. In it he told Joab to send Uriah to the front where the battle was the most fierce and the most troops were dying. He told Joab to send Uriah to the front and then when Joab signaled, the rest of the troops were to pull back. The plan worked and Uriah was killed. After an appropriate time of mourning David married Bathsheba and a baby boy was born. Meanwhile the prophet Nathan confronted David with his sin and prophesies that the child will die. The child does die, David becomes distraught, Nathan communicates God’s love and forgiveness of David, Bathsheba gets pregnant again and Solomon is the result.
At the height of David’s remorse for the numerous and murderous grave sins he had committed in his lustful ventures he wrote Psalm 32.
Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.
When I declared not my sin, my body wasted away through groaning all day long
For day and night thy hand was heavy upon me
My strength was dried up as by the heat of summer
I acknowledged by sin to thee and I did not hide my iniquity
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord
Then thou dids’t forgive the guilt of my sin.
Wonderful words of repentance in this Psalm and in numerous others. The first problem with Psalm 32 and the repentance David eloquently communicates is that David did not repent until after Nathan confronted him. This is a problem. I remember telling my kids the same thing many of you have probably told your kids, “If you have done it, don’t lie to me. It is important that no matter what you have done you tell me the truth.” Why is that such an important value for us? Because mistakes, lies, sins, if you will, distance us from those we love. The errors of our ways create a depth of darkness in our own psyches, so dark that we create a gulf in our relationship with people, even when they do not know what we have done wrong.
The psalmist wrote in Psalm 38:
My iniquities have gone over my head; they weigh like a burden too heavy for me
My wounds grow foul and fester because of my foolishness
I am utterly bowed down and prostrate, all the day I go about mourning
I am utterly spent and crushed, I groan because of the tumult of my heart
The second problem with David’s words of remorse is that he passionately declares his remorse but does not admit what he has done! He does not reference that he murdered Uriah and slept with a married woman. He beats his breast and says “Forgive me, forgive me.” This does not cut it in real relationships.
I tell the kids in my therapeutic practice, “You are as sick as your secrets.” In other words, as long as you are keeping something secret that you have done or was done to you then you are telling yourself that if people knew the truth they would not be able to love you. Keeping a secret about something wrong you have done communicates a belief in yourself that you are not intrinsically lovable, that if your significant other knew the truth about what you had done or what was done to you then they would not be able to love you….a belief that the love of others is conditional and dependent on a false image of you. If the truth were known they would not love you. Keeping a secret is a way of saying “No” to the love surrounding you, the love you have for you and others have for you. The only way to experience the joy of unconditional love is to let the secrets out so the love others have for you is based on the truth. My parents/spouse/friend knows the truth about me and still loves me. That is freeing!!!!! Jesus said, “The truth will set you free”. Forgiveness sets both the offended and the offender free. To remain in relationship.
David did not need to repent because of God’s judgment of him. God is God, and above being offended by our wayward ways. God knew of David’s sin and forgave him, but David did not know that until after he had repented and Nathan, speaking on God’s behalf, said, “The Lord has put away your sin”. God put aside the sins of lust and murder!!!! While we worry about whether or not we can ever be forgiven to comparatively petty offenses! David needed to acknowledge his sin and repent of it, not for God’s sake, but for his own. David’s guilt had created a distance from God and needed to repent in order to return to God for a blessing. God had not moved away. David did. God uses confession to bestow compassion and mercy and blessing, not judgment.
Blessed (Happy) is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.
Blessed (Happy) is the man to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity,
And in whose spirit there is no deceit.
The third problem, of course, with this ode to repentance is that David is not able to seek forgiveness from the one person most affected by his sin….Uriah. Uriah was dead and David’s confession of sin was pretty irrelevant to him. With repentance, as in many other things, timing is everything!
When my children were in their late teens and early twenties (remember between the oldest and the youngest of our 10 kids there was only 8 years) I began to feel an easing of the burden I had taken on as their mother and the thought occurred to me that my job was pretty much done. I no longer had to worry about dying and leaving Paul with the immense task of raising the children by himself. For the first time I allowed myself to consider the finiteness of my life. I must have been all of 45 or 46. As I did so I began to ponder the numerous ways I had failed my children, the times I had screamed and yelled at them, the times I said something mean or sarcastic, the times I was too busy to attend to something that was important to them. I also wondered about the negative impact living with emotionally and behaviorally disturbed children had on my healthy kids. What part of their childhood was derailed by the presence of so much dysfunction? I had an image of myself in my coffin, some of the kids looking down at me, angry at something I had said or done or failed to say or do, and not being able to get closure with my death because of it.
I felt a strong need to clear the air so over the course of 2 or so years, as circumstances presented themselves, I spent extensive one on one time with each child. I told them each individually I was sorry that I was not the mom at times that they needed or deserved and I knew I had failed them in a variety of ways. I wanted to take this opportunity to ask for their forgiveness for some very specific ways I remembered failing them and to also ask forgiveness for hurtful things I did/said or failed to do/say that I was not even aware of. I wanted to give each child an opportunity to tell me what grudges they bore me, what memories they had of me when I had wronged them, what I needed to ask forgiveness for. I was not trying to explain myself or rationalize why I did what I did, just accept that I did it and apologize for hurting them in that way. I told them I did not want them looking at my coffin and thinking of unfinished business between us.
The conversations were amazing. The one with Rebecca took place on Rehoboth Beach, while we leisurely walked along the ocean. She was so very sweet. She told me how much she loved me and what a hero I was to her for raising some of the children we adopted. She was in awe of the unconditional love present in our home. At the same time, she admitted, once she went away to college, she never wanted to return home as being around some of her dysfunctional siblings was so unpleasant. She was tired of how much time was consumed in my life by tending to their difficult needs and it seemed that there was no place for her in my life. We cried and cried over how much of our relationship was lost during her growing up years while I attended to crisis after crisis. Speaking that emotional truth to each other was extraordinarily cleansing! And it began with my asking her for forgiveness.
The conversations with some of the dysfunctional children were also illuminating. One child complained bitterly how angry at me he still was because I called the police on him when a neighbor saw him climbing out of another neighbor’s window (The beauty of living in a small town where everyone knows each other.) I listened to his anger and hurt and was able to apologize to him, not for what I had done, as I would call the police again if I caught him doing something illegal, but that what I had done had hurt him. He listed numerous other events in which I did not express regret for what I did, but was able to honestly regret that he was hurt by what I did. When I asked for his forgiveness he readily gave it. By the end of this very difficult conversation we were both exhausted but our relationship was cleaner and he was no longer angry at me. The foundation of this conversation carried us through my visits with him when he was in prison for 8 years.
By the end of these conversations I felt a huge burden had been lifted.
My repentance and seeking of forgiveness blessed my relationship with my children. Even though some of the children are now estranged to us, living in their own dysfunctional world, I am content, not with the estrangement, but with the knowledge that the children have created the distance. I have not. I have always remained available to them.
Why do they remain estranged? I believe it is because they have not been able to do with me what I did with them….that is confess how I hurt them and receive the blessing of forgiveness. The two children who have cut off all relationship with us have the huge burden of the pain they caused our family. I believe it is because they do not believe they are unconditionally loved and so push Paul and me away in order to avoid us pushing them away. They don’t realize that we would never push them away. We didn’t when they were growing up and we wouldn’t now. But because they are afraid to seek forgiveness they don’t know that. And, in truth, Paul and I do not want any abject pronouncement of guilt and a request for forgiveness. We don’t care. We just want them to call. We want to hear their voice. We want them to hear the joy in our voices when we pick up the phone and realize who it is. That is how God’s love is. We don’t need to grovel out our mistakes and beg for forgiveness of God. God has already forgiven us. We need to acknowledge when we have hurt someone in order for the burden of it to go away from us as we realize the injured one is still in our lives, loving us, not only knowing how damaged we are, but accepting of us, loving the whole truth about us, warts and all. Loving us not just through our successes, but through our failures.
So, what can we learn from this psalm? One, our errors distance us from others and from our own sense of the goodness of our own selves. They don’t distance us from God. So the sooner we admit exactly what we have done to the person we have hurt the sooner we can be forgiven and get on with our lives and our relationship. Hopefully, they won’t die while we dither and dather about it! The universal message from all of the schmaltzy poems and songs after 911 was to repair relationships at the first opportunity as one never knows when the door on that ability will suddenly and unexpectedly close forever, leaving the survivor with a desolate list of “I wish I had said…..”
Daily we say or do things that disappoint us and those around us. So daily, we have to go through the internal and sometimes external ritual of acknowledging what we have done wrong and asking forgiveness, not as a discipline to pull us down and weigh us down with the errors of our ways, but to clear the air, allow the truth to make us free, free to love and be loved, knowing that no matter what we say or do we are never distant from God and happiness will come when we close the gaps as well between ourselves and our fellow human beings by seeking forgiveness and receiving it.
The ten dollar word for this is reconciliation. Several years ago when we were between pastors our congregation became very divided on which direction to go in the call process. Two opposing directions emerged. Deeply held beliefs were buttressed by clear rationalizations why one faction had the superior view….if only the other side would back down….the congregation could get back on track. Sort of like Wisconsin on a smaller scale. People were angry and hurt. They weren’t being heard. They were being railroaded. It went on and on for several months. Attendance dwindled. People went elsewhere to worship. Our offerings barely covered the minimal expenses….and we weren’t paying a pastor! Because we were between pastors we had a series of guest pastors. Jim Gulley was one of those guest pastors and because he had worshipped with us for many years he knew what was going on. He did not merely preach on reconciliation, using the texts of the day, he forced us, each and every one of us, up, out of our pews, and across the sanctuary. In the middle of his sermon he told us to all get up and find the one person whose views we most differed with, whose friendship was strained, and ask forgiveness. I made a bee line for Cindy Massaro. I don’t know where she was headed but I caught her up in a big hug. Words could not convey my sorrow over what had happened between us and relief that it was now over. I just hugged her and cried. Fortunately she hugged me back! I believe those moments were the most powerful ever felt in this sanctuary and made it, indeed, a holy place.
What was important about this reconciliation is that Jim made it clear there were to be no misperceptions about being one up or one down. Many times reconciliation with another is derailed because one of the parties does not want to take the one down position of apologizing and asking for forgiveness. They do not want to take the one down and they do want to put the other party in the position of being one up! Friendships decades long can be fractured over the concept of one up and one down that they believe exists in asking for and receiving forgiveness. Reconciliation has nothing to do with that. Reconciliation is about setting aside right who is right and who is wrong because the relationship is more important. I ask people, “Would you rather be right or in relationship?” When there is a prolonged fracture in a relationship it is because both parties have taken an ego stance that is unworthy of the love God gives them. One person may have started the feud. But it takes two to continue it!!!! Regardless of who injured who initially, both are responsible for repairing the bond by both seeking reconciliation! Nelson Mandela, when elected president of South Africa, made reconciliation and the Committee of Reconciliation key to his forming a cohesive country after apartheid.
The saying, “No gain without pain comes to mind”. We can either have the immediate gain of avoiding admitting the truth about our actions and seeking forgiveness and the long term pain of living with the separations and losses that lack of confession and reconciliation causes us over the long term. Or….we can have the short term pain of confessing to ourselves and others the error of our ways and receive the long term gain of reconciliation, blessing and acceptance. It is up to us to choose. Refuse to acknowledge the way we have hurt someone and live in the pain of that for a very long time….or Repent, painful to do at the time, but creates happier relationships for the long haul. We choose, each and every day, how we will create blessed relationships with ourselves and those around us…..or not.