This is the complete version of my column in the Arbella in October 2017. I had many more thoughts on the subject of forgiveness than I am allowed space in our newsletter, so I invite you to read on!
My dear ones,
This past Sunday our K-2 class, the Flaming Unicorn Fox Owls, had a session entitled The Gift of Forgiveness, and I have been contemplating the lesson and its implications for our lives for the last couple of weeks.
The first thing we do every year in each church school class is write a covenant. We hang our shiny covenant – the embodiment of our highest ideals – on the wall and sign it, and then often… that’s it. We might remember to review it a few times, or maybe we turn to it if some egregious violation happens, but otherwise, that covenant hangs on the wall, looking pretty, looming its inevitably broken promises over our heads, because the thing we don’t talk about nearly enough is what to do when we break covenant.
Here’s the thing: we are going to break covenant with each other. It is inevitable, because we are imperfect humans. We will never be perfect in implementing our ideals, no matter how good our intentions. When we pretend to ourselves that we will always follow our covenants, we start to fear the consequences – the rains will come and the waters will rise! When we get in this mindset about our covenants together, though, we limit their ability to work for and with us.
Last summer I was privileged to witness a ritual in the Ferry Beach RE Week Youth Group. It was a wonderful model of how to re-enter covenant; so often our society doesn’t teach us what to do when we – individually or as a group – are wrong and need to make reparations and ask for forgiveness.
The Youth had been, in what started as good fun, teasing one of their members. It probably didn’t feel like good fun for him for very long, but the teasing kept on well beyond comfort. I don’t know whether he was upset and said something, or whether the adults in the group decided it was not okay, but that night, a trusted outsider was invited to lead a ritual. They did a reading, reviewed their covenant together, reviewed enough of what happened so that everyone who needed to know understood why they were there, and then the floor opened for youth to talk to their friend. No apology was demanded; rather, the leader asked them to focus on what they would do in the future – either to avoid a repeat or to make reparations with the target of the teasing. Many youth spoke, letting the boy know he was valued, sometimes apologizing. At the end, the leader reminded everyone that it was the boy’s prerogative to forgive, or not.
And the boy said nothing – but this wasn’t a bad thing. I think it opened up the option for his friends to check in with him privately, and I would be utterly shocked to learn that not one of them had. Of course there was some eye-rolling from our teenagers at this silly adult-enforced ritual. Duh, everyone knew the young man was fine. But they all really do care about him, and I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that this ritual made his best friends check in with him later. “Are you really okay?” “You know I didn’t mean it, right?” “I love you, man.”
The next night the same young man spoke for his best friend at our bridging ceremony, and he wept, and so did his friend, and so did every last one of us witnessing. Perhaps without the ritual all would have been the same… but I have no doubt that it allowed for any hard feelings to be put aside and for the renewal of and re-commitment to a lifelong friendship.
Our society teaches us to be defensive first when we are accused of wrongdoing. I see it daily on Social Media. John says something he thinks is funny. Jane says, “Hey, that’s racist.” Or sexist or demeaning to a group of people. Jane is angry because she has seen this same statement a hundred times and she didn’t expect it from John. And so she doesn’t temper her words and it sounds like the accusation it is.
The other day I saw such an exchange in which, before John could come back and say “You don’t know me, how dare you say I’m racist,” another friend popped in and affirmed Jane but using a different set of words. “I know you meant to be funny, John. But you should be aware that for certain people, saying what you said is really hurtful, and here’s why.”
And then back came John. “I didn’t think of my words in that light. I’m so sorry what I said could be interpreted that way. I’m deleting my comment and editing it to show that I was wrong.”
It was magic. It was people at their best. It was an invitation back into covenant. Because that’s the way we deal with it when the covenant breaks. We don’t yell, we don’t swear, we don’t wring our hands. We invite. “Our covenant says to seek the truth in love. I know you’re seeking truth, but the tone of voice you’re using isn’t in love right now, and it’s making it hard for me to hear. Can we get back into covenant together?” Sometimes it might take a calming down period. Our choices are to join together, or to hold anger and grudges for a very long time. Speaking words of reparation and forgiveness can help mend the path.
I’m so grateful to this curriculum for giving our little ones words to articulate this with now. Perhaps admitting they’re wrong and asking forgiveness won’t be as hard for them as it is for me.
I’m getting better, though. A couple of weeks ago I told a story in church and in it I reinforced the idea that binary gender is normative. I did this even though I do not believe it, even though I try very hard to be an ally and friend to my Trans* and gender-non-binary friends and acquaintances, and to the community. I was gently corrected during the water ceremony by the parent of a Trans child, in a way that was definitely calling in rather than calling out. And instead of shaking my fists and shouting that I am an ally, darn it! I sought her out later and thanked her for pointing out my error. I made our church less comfortable and less welcoming for people who are Transgender and gender-nonconforming, and I am going to try to be more aware of this in the future. I knew I had done it as the words came out of my mouth, but I didn’t know how to correct it gracefully in the moment. But I will think through my storytelling more completely in the future and try to be as inclusive as possible, and I will continue to work for equity in gender in our church and in society. I hope anyone I hurt can forgive me.