Forgiveness: Stories to Tell
WHEN SOMETHING REMARKABLE IS BORN, there are stories to tell. Today I’ll share a few to celebrate publication of my Pendle Hill Pamphlet titled, Forgiveness: Freed To Love (April 2023). It was conceived and grew through years of stories. It was birthed through the hard work of shaping words just so, and accompanied by graced spiritual midwives. And this month, it’s thrilling to hold a newborn reality, a package received with printed pages enclosed. Wise friends say that a big ministry effort is like a birth. Though I’ve never experienced that transformative process, the delivery of this essay fulfills a dream.
I grew up with healthy religious encouragement to forgive, but it wasn’t so real to me until the last decade. Then the stories started. A guest presenter in the retreat program I direct, Way of the Spirit, described forgiveness as a key element of beloved community—what we might call the commonwealth of God or a Holy ecology of relatedness. “How does that actually happen?” I wondered practically. So with some chagrin, I became a real-time demonstration project. I offered a decades old story of hurt in a former faith community, when I’d contributed to a harmful tangle, and regretted it ever since.
There were no magic words. No set processes. With wise guidance from Jan Wood, that presenter, I spoke the truth of the situation and my part. I acknowledged a desire to be forgiven, and released the situation into the Spirit. The group witnessed and echoed the reality of Divine forgiveness for that faith community and me. We welcomed whatever the Holy wanted to do to heal and restore things.
What happened wasn’t just teaching about freedom in God, it was the felt sense of it. Images seemed to capture the sensibility well. I dropped a weight. Holy merry movers hauled away some garbage in my inner being. I knew open-hearted joy and gratitude that good could come even through this mess. The experience touched me deeply with a sense of the endless flowing mercy of the Divine.
The retreat continued, and later we learned that the same weekend, the person hurt by those decades-old mistakes had returned to worship with the same community. It was the first time in years. It was exhilarating to be part of this Spirit-work between us over thousands of miles and a couple decades. If I had to name a moment of conception for the Pendle Hill Pamphlet, this would be when the Spirit hovered and planted a seed.
Every year in the Way of the Spirit, a new group would cycle through the topic of forgiveness with Jan. Each time, I’d learn something new and grow. The simple, experiential definition of forgiveness as “release into the Spirit,” has held up. It often surprised me and others. One retreat participant returned from a solo forgiveness exercise to say with squinty-eyed suspicion, “That was too easy!” She actually asked if she’d been hypnotized. No. Yet she recognized that the burden of her anger and pain toward those who’d harmed her had lifted.
Forgiveness spreads with lived experience and airspace to share the stories. I don’t wish to be glib here. Real pain and suffering need tending, not a “spiritual bypass.” So, I’ve experimented in my personal and ministry life over many years. What could I forgive or be forgiven and how? Once while facilitating a retreat group, I hurt someone’s feelings. I apologized in front of the group and noted how the community softened and opened to each other. It was a struggle to forgive myself for my actions, but that was needed too.
A year or so later, during a contentious change in my current faith community, I realized people were holding tightly to misunderstandings and ways others in the group had hurt them, despite apologies and good intentions. I didn’t shame anyone, but I named aloud how that dynamic was hindering our connection and care for each other. What would it mean to let our hurts go? Maybe the Spirit could fill the gaps in ways we couldn’t yet imagine. That’s what forgiveness does. Many of us noted the dissipation of angst, and renewal of our bonds in Spirit.
Forgiveness-as-release changes things. To attempt to capture the freedom of it for the Pendle Hill Pamphlet series excited and challenged me. I hope the essay will help others talk about forgiveness without the old baggage of more legalistic definitions. This approach isn’t tied to getting something from someone else. It’s not about “forgetting” a wrong, or letting anyone, including myself, “off the hook.” It’s more about trusting the Divine with the hurts I’ve caused or suffered. Forgiveness is about collaborating with a Holy Healer for the next good thing. All this reframing has taken many years.
During the worst of the COVID pandemic, I blew up at my sister over the phone about our differing perspectives on the virus and public life. Our close relationship could have ended there. It took me a couple days, but I was able to apologize and ask her forgiveness. She asked for mine, and I forgave her too. Forgiveness opens the door for more forgiveness.
Later she wondered why I could forgive her around that situation, but a friend of hers could not. The word that rose in my mind and heart was “prepared.” God had prepared me. I had sturdy self-understanding and spiritual tools ready to engage in the situation.
Could I articulate some of my inner processing to help others prepare to forgive? It was a hint of a Divine prompt to write. I did type out some thoughts for my sister. Writing helped sort many aspects of a complicated situation: What was I forgiving? What did I feel? Was I willing to forgive? How could I trust the Spirit with my hurt and hers, our health and hopes? My sister really appreciated what came. “You of all people, are able to process all that,” she wrote. It was a sweet encouragement to keep going.
The next spring, that story, retold with her permission, formed the core of a plenary presentation on forgiveness for Quakers in my region. Alumni of the Way of the Spirit showed up online to help me practice. A circle of locals who meet regularly to support my efforts in ministry suggested that I write for publication. Pendle Hill Publications expressed interest, and a top-notch editor helped midwife the shift from lecture notes to the essay format.
Stories of forgiveness continue to multiply in my life. I share them because they are a beautiful ways I experience and collaborate with the presence of God. Stories are more potent than 5-step guides for many. They can touch the human experience beyond doctrine, theological buzz words, or inner defenses. We may hear the Spirit moving under or beyond the words. That’s why Forgiveness: Freed to Love includes personal examples. It’s not because I have it all figured out, but to help readers sense the motion of Love in the situations, and catch that. Queries are meant to prompt their own stories.
I’ve noticed that people may “get” one type of forgiveness, but miss another. Retreat participants often say that self-forgiveness is harder than expected. Plus I’d never heard social-justice oriented friends talk about how forgiveness might intersect with their activism. So, I did more personal experimenting with my family tree and colonial roots. That’s in the Pendle Hill Pamphlet too, as an example of my own growing edges.
Forgiveness touched me through others, and has spread over the years to rearrange my faithfulness every day. A practice so liberating, so energizing and positive, begs to be shared. I wonder what stories of forgiveness you might pass along?
- The Pendle Hill Pamphlet, Forgiveness: Freed to Love is available here.
- On Retreat: If you’d like to explore forgiveness as a powerful tool in your spiritual life, please consider an experiential retreat, July 31-August 3, 2023 in Union, WA (on Hood Canal near Tacoma, Washington): Forgiveness Retreat Details