“Forgive for Good” by Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Delivered October 23, 2016

Unitarian Universalist Community of the Mountains

Grass Valley, CA

Opening Words   Let Go, by Lois Van Leer



“The Skeleton at the Feast” by Frederick Buechner


“You Might Not Get the Apology You Deserve” (excerpt) by Shannon L. Alder


Message         “Forgive for Good”          Rev. Kevin Tarsa

Ray Stedman claims that “Forgiveness… is the virtue we most enjoy, and least employ… . We all love to be forgiven — we expect it, and want it. But we find it a struggle to forgive; we resist it, and refuse oftentimes to do it.”[1]

I know that I have often struggled to forgive. Anyone else?

One Halloween, when I was about eight or nine years old I decided I would save my Halloween candy in a jar and eat only or two pieces each day, spreading out the enjoyment over a couple weeks. There were probably five of us kids at that time. The next day I got my jar out of hiding only to discover that almost all the candy was gone, eaten, presumably, by one or more of my siblings. I was furious. I’m still working on that one!

In the Catholic tradition in which I was raised, asking for and offering forgiveness were held up as central to our spiritual wellbeing. Catholicism keeps repentance front and center every week, inviting silent confession in the service itself, and in the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation beforehand. It was so important to this young Catholic and my fellow competitively Catholic school classmates, that it was tempting to make things up in the confessional, which would have the added benefit of giving something genuine to confess next time, but of course there was plenty about which to repent.

I remember my mother once insisting that I apologize to one of my brothers– I don’t remember for what – I only remember the feeling of my anger and my snapping back that I wouldn’t mean it.

And meaning it matters. I read recently of some legal scholars’ argument that “sincere penitence is superior to punishment as a way of resolving mutual grievances, and . . .[that] many legal disputes arise in the first place only because there had not been an apology.”[2] All kinds of disputes arise, or continue, because there has not been an apology. I bet you know some of those.

The High Holy Days

The Jewish tradition offers an annual invitation to reflect deeply on the relationships we’ve harmed or severed, and encourages people to seek reconciliation. Teshuva (repentance), is the focus, Teshuva, from a Hebrew root meaning “to return.” (“return to who we are, to what we are, to where we are born and reborn again”….to relationships that are renewed, if not ever quite the same as before.)

According to Jewish law a person is required to apologize sincerely three times, and if the apology is not accepted by then, it becomes the other person’s problem. If you happen to be the “other person” in a harmed relationship, “You might not get the apology you deserve …” let alone three apologies (for any number of reasons), but that doesn’t mean that you cannot forgive, that you cannot let go in ways that strengthen your wholeness and integrity, and maybe even, eventually, return you to a repaired and strong, if knotty, relationship.

The sincere penitence and apology parts of the reconciliation process are so important and worthy of a service and more.  I certainly want and need to work on those in myself. This morning, however, I will focus on the forgiveness side of the process, as we continue our month-long exploration of what it means to be a community of healing. Because if we require someone’s apology in order to forgive them, we are unnecessarily limiting our ability to forgive, and placing our capacity to forgive in other people’s hands, rather than in our own heart.


A story from the Gospel of Matthew rings in my memory, perhaps in your memory too: The apostle Peter came to Jesus and asked: “If a member of this community sins against me, how many times should I forgive? As many as 7 times?” Jesus answers, “No, not 7 times, but …77 times or 70×7 times, depending upon the translation (Matthew 18: 21-22)

People who study such things say that both the number and the equation, represented infinity in that time and culture, meaning that the invitation was to forgive an infinite number of times. But those numbers can also be interpreted as “completeness.” That’s the way I think of it. We’re called to forgive others and ourselves enough to support our own wholeness, the integrity of our relationships, and the completeness of our community. “Return again…return to the home of your soul…”

To link back to a recent Sunday service and to be clear, this doesn’t mean that we allow people to keep hurting us or the community. We may need to say No! to someone’s behavior for the sake of our wholeness AND learn to forgive that person even as we set those integrity-sustaining boundaries.

The bottom line is that forgiving others is good for you.  We know this, but as

C.S. Lewis points out, “forgiveness is a lovely idea …until we have something to forgive.”

In the hope of offering insight that helps us move from “lovely idea” to effective forgiveness, I’ll share with you some of the teachings of Frederic Luskin.

Fred Luskin’s Work

For almost twenty years now Frederic Luskin has been the director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects. He studies forgiveness, figures out what works, and teaches classes in how to forgive.

He points out that religions have been developing tools and urging people to forgiveness in passionate ways for thousands of years, and all he had to do was publish a paper showing that forgiving others lowers your blood pressure and he gets in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. If lower blood pressure is a compelling motivation, “great,” I say, especially when the end results offer so many other benefits.

According to Luskin’s research, when people learn to forgive, their cardiovascular, muscle and neural health improves, they have less stress, report fewer health problems, their relationships improve, AND learning to forgive, says Luskin, can also help limit the degree to which you get hurt in the future.

He’s particularly attentive to the emotional and physical stress that not forgiving causes people, and the toll that it takes on our bodies and our happiness.

Learn how to Forgive for Good, he advises, for the good of your health, for the good of your relationships, for the good of the world.

Forgive for Good

Luskin says that the problem begins when we form a grievance:

When something happens in our lives that we didn’t want to happen, or when something we really hoped would happen didn’t, if we deal with the hurt, pain and disappointment by thinking about it too much and too long, what he refers to as “renting too much space in our minds to it,” a grievance develops.  By carefully nurturing and feeding a grievance we can keep a hurt alive forever, feeling the anger long past when the anger might actually help us change the situation. But hanging on to a grievance after the event keeps us locked in the past, keeps us prisoner to the experience that hurt, and prisoner to the person that hurt us.

“[Though] to lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, . . . to savor to the last toothsome morsel in many ways . . . is a feast fit for a king [or a queen]…. [however] what you are wolfing down is yourself.   – Frederick Buechner

After a painful hurt, we tend to think: “What someone did was wrong! End of the story,” and we get stuck there, telling that story in a way that hurts us. Luskin says instead, “What someone did was wrong, and that was the beginning of the forgiveness story.”

Here is how Luskin defines “forgiveness:”

“Forgiveness: is the experience of peace and understanding that can be felt in the present moment, if we let go of the grievance.” It sounds Buddhist, to me. Luskin says that without forgiving, part of our energy to love others is tied up in feeling and holding onto the grievance, and then a portion of our love is unavailable to give to others.

He names that “forgiveness is not condoning unkindness. Forgiveness is not forgetting that something painful happened. Forgiveness is not excusing poor behavior. … Forgiveness is not denying or minimizing your hurt. Forgiveness does not mean reconciling with the offender. Forgiveness does not mean that you don’t press charges [or work for change]. Forgiveness does not mean you give up having feelings.”

Forgiveness is a way of giving you back to yourself, of experiencing peace in the present moment, of freeing up the energy that’s tied up in holding the grievance, so you can channel it toward positive changes in your life, and toward loving others.

Forgiveness doesn’t excuse their actions. Forgiveness stops their actions from destroying your heart.              – Karen Salmansohn

Luskin offers many helpful insights. If you are wanting to strengthen your capacity to fogive, I commend his work to you. Here are a few of his ideas that I find particularly helpful. Draw upon any of these that might serve you:

In Order To Forgive…

Know exactly how you feel about what happened and be able to articulate what about the situation is not okay. (These are more challenging that they might appear.)Then, tell a trusted couple of people about your experience.

Now, given that I’ve recently asked you to practice direct communication with one another and to avoid pass-through communication, let me clarify the details.

The reason you tell a couple trusted others is important. Tell in order to receive support, and guidance for what to do about it, not to reinforce or get cosponsors for your grievance story.

And tell a couple trusted others. If you tell more than a couple others, you are starting to stoke a grievance story.

If you tell your story more than twice to the same person, it’s a grievance story.

If you replay your story in your mind throughout the day, it’s a grievance story.

Don’t confuse an unforgivable offense with an unwillingness or inability to forgive. No matter what we’ve experienced, someone in the world has forgiven such a thing.

When the 10 young Amish women were killed in Lancaster Co. PA, a grandfather of one of the women expressed forgiveness for the shooter the same day. That same same afternoon neighbors visited and consoled the shooter’s family. That same week the families of the young women invited shooter’s family to their funerals. At the shooters funeral, there were more Amish than anyone else.

I think of the Tibettan Buddhist nuns captured and tortured. Their greatest fear, they said, was not the pain they would experience, but that they would come to hate their captors.

I think of the Mother Emanuel AME church in Charleston, South Carolina. Families members of some of the nine people who were killed expressed very public forgiveness for the shooter.

Recognize that both a grievance and forgiveness are experiences in the moment. Recognize that your primary distress is coming from the hurt feelings, thoughts and physical upset you are suffering now, not what offended you or hurt you last year or four or ten years ago. Suffering is coming from the feelings we have now around the hurt, not from the original active hurting behavior itself, unless that behavior is continuing.

Make a commitment to yourself to do what you have to do to feel better.

Start with the realization that forgiveness is for you. What you are after is to find peace, the “peace and understanding that come from blaming that which has hurt you less.” Otherwise we are giving what or who hurt us power over how we feel.

Instead of focusing on your wounded feelings, and thereby giving the person who caused you pain power over you, learn to look for the love, beauty and kindness around you. Luskin advises, “Don’t tune into the grievance channel.” The grievance channel runs 24/7 and is enticing, but there are other channels. Find other channels.

At the moment you feel upset practice a simple stress management technique to soothe your body’s flight or fight [or freeze] response. We can’t think clearly when we are in survival mode. Luskin suggests taking deep breaths and imagining a person you love or a beautiful place.

Put your energy into looking for another way to get your positive goals met than through the experience that has hurt you. Instead of mentally replaying your hurt, figure out what unmet need is underneath the hurt and seek out new ways to get what you want.

Notice who is the main character in the story you are telling. It the person who hurt you is the main character in the story, it’s a grievance story. Can you it a story about you, change your grievance story to remind you of your heroic choice to forgive?

We can’t control what happened, but can control how we tell the story about what happened.

In the context of this congregation, perhaps you are feeling hurt. Perhaps you need, for your own peace of heart and mind, to apologize to someone. That may go a long way toward reconciliation since so many disputes happen or continue because there was never an apology.

You may need, for your own peace of heart and mind to forgive, with or without apology or reconciliation. “You may [never] get the apology you deserve.”

Either way, choose to forgive.

A Ritual

I imagine that various personal stories have been surfacing in you throughout the service today. I invite you to reflect for a moment, and to surface a grievance or grudge that you wish had less of a hold on you than it does. Something that needs forgiving (or apologizing for) for your own wellbeing.

Write some word or symbol or shape on the special paper you received on the way into the service this morning.  I invite you, as you are ready and if you wish, to bring your piece of paper forward and to place it in the bowl of water

On your way back, I invite you to take a piece of knotted rope as a tangible reminder of a re-connection you desire, or a knot that needs untying within you, or between you and another person – some forgiveness that you seek in your life.

Song:  “There is a Healing” by K. Tarsa

There is a healing…in this room; …in these eyes; …in these hands; …in this heart; etc.

That was dissolving paper. The message is not that forgiveness happens easily or quickly, that it disappears like magic. Sometimes forgiveness is like that, but often not. It takes practice and courage, takes changing your story, without waiting for an apology.

May that embodied ritual Ritual and the small piece of knotted rope anchor your memory, remind you of the invitation to forgive.

Choose forgiveness.

Corrie Ten Boom, a Christian woman who survived a Nazi concentration camp during the Holocaust, said,

“Forgiveness is to set a prisoner free, and to realize the prisoner was you.”

May this be the beginning of your forgiveness story.

May we learn, over time, to set ourselves free, each and together……

So may it be.

[1] Forgive for Good by Fred Luskin, HarperOne, 2002.

[2] http://www.aish.com/sp/pg/Im_Sorry.html