Ash Wednesday Homily: Insights into Forgiveness-Becoming a Phoenix!

February 18, 2010 - 9:56 am 556 Comments

An Ash Wednesday Homily:
The Practice of Forgiveness: On Becoming a Phoenix!

The time span between tonight, Ash Wednesday, to Easter morning, is the time in the history of Western church and its religious archetypal culture, that focuses on Jesus as a working, living, relational model for how to live our lives more fully, more compassionately.
His message is of particular importance to those among us who are seeking a more spiritual and empathetic basis for their lives. Depending on how you look at him, and I see him as a spiritually infused man who was called into a special intimacy with the Divine. In and through his teachings about having compassion for one another and ourselves, he models how to live our lives in a way that affirms and bears witness to all that is holy and loving in everyone of us. As a role model, we can see his example as both a challenge and a gift…
Among his hardest teachings to uphold were his indications on forgiveness. He sought to overcome the concept of tribal revenge, and he offered a remedy for all slights and injustices, which we know as the practice of forgiveness. When others asked him how this act of compassion was to be done, or what attitude promotes and accomplishes it, we can remember his words:
“[Love your enemies, bless those who would curse you,
pray for others who might abuse you. As you wish others would treat you or would do for you, do that for them. …
It is of no credit to you to only love those who are lovable, but you are to lend and love, give and do, whatever is good and kind. Be merciful, and compassionate, even as your Father in Heaven has mercy and compassion for you.”] Luke 6 NRSV adapted Mt. 5:48
In modern terms, his words and example ask us to live by empathy, and to live with a courage that extends your caring to others. Do not allow yourself to dwell in the toxic feelings of judgment, stuck in our resentments, bogged down by regrets, or wallowing in remorse or fear. Instead, his inspired and insightful teaching directs us to try to see your struggles and trials as reflected or shared by all people, and with sufficient wisdom or understanding, and a generous amount of forgiveness, we will win our heart’s release from any lingering bitterness or guilt.
Now, I am no stranger to fear, resentment, or guilt- throughout the many twists of fate, and those painful reversals of fortune, both in my personal life and in my larger ministry, there have been times when it seems that I could not do enough, be good enough, or be reconciled to the many different and difficult tasks that have been given to me.
I suspect that this is true for each of you… Whether your particular challenge or concern has been to be a good parent, spouse, worker, sibling, or caregiver, those nagging doubts and those disturbing feelings can lodge in our emotions or inhabit our hearts as deep feelings of guilt, inadequacy, and powerlessness.
Even if we can identify that these feelings are varieties of unhealthy guilt or shame, just knowing it isn’t enough… We must act to completely release or reduce those negative feelings.
While recognition and acceptance are good and necessary first steps, the next, more difficult, yet more complete steps in our freedom, our health, and our joy is what the spiritual teachers East and West recommend: forgiveness, which becomes our flight path up and out… Up and out towards an unselfish regard and abiding respect for others and ourselves.
My friend, professional colleague, Joan Borysenko, has previously outlined these differences in two books. … The first is called Guilt is the Teacher and Love is the Lesson, and the second is entitled Seventy Times Seven. She concludes that our whole society tends to run on unhealthy guilt… What are some of the signs she lists as unhealthy guilt?
First, being overly committed, having too much to do, too many activities, being too wired or plugged in, and thereby having no real time to yourself- especially when it comes to giving sufficient time to reflect on the meaning of one’s life and its actions. Guilt festers when you do not give yourself enough time to attend to your spiritual and ethical growth, to give time to your need for wellness, creativity, or real relationships…

She goes on in her list to include: perfectionism, playing the martyr, keeping negative partnerships for the sake of money or emotional insecurity… Or blaming yourself for your parent’s problems, and accepting false responsibility or excessively worrying about things that are out of your personal control! The list goes on… And I am sure you can add things of your own…
Her remedy is also mine, and both come from the wisdom of Jesus. Practice forgiveness- practice it daily, hourly, if need be, holding on to no poisonous thoughts or destructive feelings, and then be willing to look courageous and empathetically at your own flaws in a new light…
As my Jungian and archetypal studies have taught me, these flaws, these areas of weakness, inadequacy, or avoidance that we all have- are paradoxical and powerful. These shadow emotions and hurtful experiences -when they are understood, or when they are brought to our conscious awareness-, can become our disguised blessings. These flaws can be transformed into shining facets of wisdom and understanding- Since these experiences have been created from the pressures of life and our imperfections- that serve us well by refining and redefining us, and that keep us exploring, and growing.
When these troublesome feelings manifest, and take it from me, they always do… They are, in their positive light, asking us to understand them, heal them or release them…
and it is from the synergistic grace we receive from those personal struggles, that we can authentically come to know a greater sense of wholeness, equipoise, and peace.
I believe that we are all in need of forgiveness… therefore, we need to be always ready and willing to forgive ourselves and others, for it is from such humility that positive change is encouraged, and it is from that blessing of release, that we encourage the growth of wisdom in our hearts, creating a more resilient , multifaceted spiritual understanding of life.
In my research, and in my life practice, forgiveness has four general ways it expresses itself- two are self defeating and unproductive, and two are positive and are more effective or more redemptive.
Briefly, the two less useful or ineffective ways we express forgiveness center themselves on fear: first is when we will forgive because we are afraid to lose the friendship or partnership, so we forgive too quickly . We forgive without ever expecting a change in the behavior of those who have hurt you… In other words, we are too damn easy on them, too ready to excuse someone’s behavior, and so we can find ourselves saying, “Oh, they couldn’t help it!” This attitude often allows the callous or the egotistical behavior to continue… It gives permission for the cycle of any form of abuse to go on and on…

The second self-defeating approach is found in the refusal to forgive- when we continue to rehearse the hurt, hold on to grudges, or refuse to move on emotionally from the slights and insults we all can receive over a lifetime…
From my Buddhist Tara teachings, I was given clear instruction that advises anyone who chooses to work towards enlightenment , towards greater emotional clarity, we must first personally encounter, and then we have to overcome the three great psychic poisons: Regret, Remorse, and Resentment. Holding on to these toxic feelings imprisons you, and ultimately can rob you of your health and your life! They can never serve growth, good, or grace… When we spitefully hold on to negative feelings, it is as if we continue to drink poison, and then expect the other person to get sick!

The two more positive ways combine a willingness to accept and then forgive with the clear expectation of behavioral reform, or true sense of contrition by the offending person.
The first way is simply known as Acceptance. Accepting what has happened to us, knowing what our role in this experience has been, and seeking understanding for both the offense and our reactions. The best response towards regaining our peace of mind, and a quietness of heart, is our willingness to let go of those feelings that can capture or control us….
and to know or realize that the path to our freedom is found by gaining the wisdom from the lessons learned, and it is made complete by having compassion for all who were involved… Then, taking what we know as our inner teacher, we can use that wisdom as our guide to moving past it or to getting on with our lives in ways that preserve our dignity, and keep us from being trapped into any repetitive patterns…
I know that it is often really difficult to grasp or accept the awful truth that we might never receive an apology, never genuinely hear “I am sorry”, but as long we have actually learned from the situation, we can consciously choose to let it go… In that conscious act of letting go, we can detoxify our hearts… Remember this insight: Acceptance does not excuse or forgive the abuser or the actions, but it does release the burdens from being stuck in our hearts and minds…
The last approach I would call Genuine Forgiveness.
It involves not holding a grudge, but it does clearly expect behavioral changes that can eventually restore trust, friendship, and intimacy. If those changes are not made, the relationship remains broken, and there is no complete or authentic sense of forgiveness to be found!
Forgiveness, as a personal healing process, is affirmed in one’s heart and it is recognized as something that is good, right, and true…
It is received by one’s conscience, or by inner moral compass, and it understood by our sense of justice and empathy. When Jesus’ disciples asked him how much or how often they were to forgive, he replied, “seventy times seven” or until your own perfection arrives! Only then are you allowed to cast stones or pass judgments. He knew that harsh judgments never improved anyone, and often they impeded change by the burden of anger or resentment. …
Yet, he did not offer an easy form or a blanket forgiveness that is without behavioral demands… Only with such an tough love stance, can lasting change ever take place. …

There is, in my understanding, a supernal, or a higher altruism that is also as a part of acceptance and forgiveness. There is a gracious synergy or a healing energy that is released when we truly forgive… Every time we forgive, we generate a quality of warmth that builds into a greater fire of compassion, and as we forgive, we give birth to a new transcending, loving force for good, that is more accessible to all humankind…
Like a grand fiery orange Phoenix that arises from the ashes of the ego, whose nest was filled with all the slights and sufferings we humans can experience, we can, through wisdom and grace, be propelled upward into a new flight, a new life!

Forgiveness renews our souls, as the ancient Jewish texts declare, we carried up on the wings of a great bird, that lifts itself from the ashes of despair, and begins to fly beyond any regrets to become enlivened, unburdened, and free! (Hebrew neshar)
In closing, let us remember this timeless, transcendent lesson from this Lenten season:
As we live, we must forgive…
As we love, we rise above…

And, so it is, that we gather on this Ash Wednesday night… To attend reverently to an ancient and powerful ritual that will work to anoint us with the holy promise of God that can release us from any guilt and pain, so that we can continue our lifelong flight towards integrity and wholeness, compassion, and peace…

Shalom & Shalem AMEN, So Be IT!

Selected Reading:
From a min-course in healing: Thoughts inspired from A Course In Miracles by Jerry Jamplowsky, MD.
“Whenever I see someone else as guilty, I am reinforcing my own sense of guilt or unworthiness…
I cannot truly forgive myself unless I am willing to forgive others… Only through forgiveness can my release from lingering guilt or fear be complete.
So today, let me choose to let go of all my past misconceptions and see myself and others in the light of true forgiveness.
I was mistaken in believing that I could give anyone anything other than what I wanted for myself…
Offering love is the only way I can accept love for myself.

The irreverent and anti-establishment psychiatrist, Thomas Szasz encapsulates the teachings of forgiveness in these pithy and declarative words:

The stupid neither forgive nor forget
The naive forgive, and forget
The wise forgive, but do not forget….

Children and Forgiveness:
When we are young, we learn from our parents…
When we are older, we judge their actions…
And when we are old enough, and wise enough, we learn to forgive them… . Adapted from Oscar Wilde

“[We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. Any of us who is devoid of the power to truly forgive, is also devoid of the power to truly love.
It is true that there is some good in the worst of us, and there is some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate, and more open to life and love.]” From Martin Luther King, Jr.

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