As this New Year begins, I find myself reflecting on events in my own life from years ago. I’ve been taking a webinar on forgiveness and I think that it, too, is prompting this reflection. My biggest challenge in terms of forgiveness, as I think is the case for many people, is learning to forgive myself. I think that these arising memories of things that happened as far back as my childhood are opportunities to step more fully into self-forgiveness as well.
Today I found myself reflecting on my first call. When I was in seminary, and frankly my years as a young adult before going to seminary, I felt pretty clear that my primary call into ministry was primarily “prophetic”. What I mean by that is that I knew that while ministers are called to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable” that my call was very much on the “afflict the comfortable” end of things. I regularly stood up against injustices, taking concrete actions to confront oppressive government behaviors, to organize rallies and non-violent protests, to preach and speak and organize on behalf of the “least of these” – those who are often overseen, neglected, abused, oppressed and worse. I didn’t care who I angered by these actions – seeing their anger, if anything, as a sign that I was on the right track. After all, we know that Jesus angered people enough with his standing up against the legalists and the hypocrites that they killed him. I felt if people were angry that I was standing up for the poor and oppressed, then I must be doing something right. At my ordination, the friend I had invited to preach spoke about this. He said that I rattled cages, but that this was the gift, this was the call that I clearly had been given: to confront the oppressor, to challenge the apathetic into truly learning to love those others would disregard.
But then I went to my first church call. I went in roaring and pushing for the church to take strong stands on justice issues. And instead of being able to make those changes, I found that I got the ire and suspicions up from those who saw me as an inexperienced upstart who didn’t really understand my position or my place. Instead of making the changes I knew I was called to make, I was disregarded and discounted more and more. My voice, which had carried weight and value in college, at seminary, and even during my internship, was pushed aside. I was effectively limited in voice as well as in action. I was an associate pastor, so people weren’t leaving the church, but they were closing off the work I could do, tightening the reigns on my options, and closing doors to relationships. I left that position after only a year. And while much of my leaving had to do with a difficult senior pastor who simply did not “play well with women,” I’m certain that my decision to leave was exacerbated by my own sense of not doing well in that call.
Fortunately, I didn’t leave without learning and growing. I learned that relationships must be built, trust must be gained, people must know that you love them, and not just because you’ve said it but because you’ve shown it, before they will be able to hear things that challenge their thinking, that encourage them to look at things differently, that then call them to different actions. I learned that pushing too hard leads only to anger and separation, not growth in others. I learned that listening first is extremely important. I also learned that first impressions are sometimes the only impressions you will be allowed to give. And that once we have alienated someone, rebuilding those relationships can be extremely hard to do. While apologies are important, the “other” may not always accept them, so being thoughtful from the start is important.
When we talk about “repentance” in the church, we are talking about taking another path, choosing a different way to go, to walk; turning from one direction to another. And we take this seriously. But my experience tells me that most of the time while we can see our own growth, and we can celebrate the steps we’ve made to become different people, more loving people, more faithful people, people who are more whole, we don’t always trust or see that others are also growing. Part of our failure to forgive other people is an inability to see or accept that the other may have genuinely changed, grown and moved from wherever it was that caused them to do damage to us or to someone else that we care about. When it comes to self-forgiveness, I think that I struggle with actions that may have hurt or upset others in part because I believe that THEY don’t understand that I, too, have changed, moved, grown, “repented”, chosen a different path, seen where I’ve erred and strived to do better. My fear that they can’t see that in me, and that they can’t forgive me in part encourages me to not forgive myself. It shouldn’t be that way. I can’t control what others see, feel or think. And I should not allow what others judge in me to determine my own behaviors or the ways in which I view myself. But this is easier said than done…
I’m still learning. I’m still growing. I’m still making mistakes. And there are people who cannot or will not forgive me. There are people who will not accept that I change and grow, too. There are people who will choose judgment and rejection over an open-heart when it comes to relationships with me. When you are in a leadership position, it sometimes is easier for people to simply write you off then work through the hard and painful process of reconciliation. I understand this. I don’t like it, but I understand it. So today my goals are two fold: first, I will work more on self-forgiveness. I find that self-forgiveness leads more deeply into a change in behavior than any intense self-judgment can possibly do, anyway. So I do this for the “others” in my life as well, so that I may have the grace and compassion to truly grow in my actions, to be more loving, to be more aware, to listen more deeply. My second goal is to remember how it feels when others box me into “that’s just the way she is” kind of thinking and to be more open about the possibilities that others are growing too. These are my goals for this day. I invite you into deeper self-forgiveness as well. And I encourage you to remember that just as you are growing and changing, others are too. Perhaps we can be better at giving all people the benefit of the doubt: both ourselves and others.