On my birthday I had lunch with my father.
That doesn’t sound too momentous, but there was a time, years ago, when that would have been a bridge I would have thought impossible to cross. For twenty-nine years we have been friends, but for the first nineteen years of my life we built a steady and sturdy resentment against each other that finally caused a six-year stalemate during which we had no communication. The details are not important now.
What is important is that we let it go. We let go of bitterness that was poisoning each of us. We let go of the hateful and hurtful things we had said. We forgave each other and became friends.
What was the catalyst for this transformation? How could it all just suddenly not matter?We could have continued not speaking, not sharing holidays, not observing birthdays, not giving thanks for the lives we have because of each other, and life would have gone on for us both. But there came a Sunday morning during church, as I was repeating the Lord’s Prayer, when I said the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and I heard those words as I had never heard them before. They spoke to me. And if I wasn’t forgiving, then I couldn’t, and wouldn’t, be forgiven. And I not only needed to extend forgiveness – I needed to ask for forgiveness. It took me almost a month, but I finally worked up the courage to call my father. We spoke for the first time in six years, agreed to meet soon, and did, and have remained in at least weekly contact since then.
I recognize it might not be that easy for everyone. Sometimes it is impossible to re-establish contact for a variety of reasons. Perhaps a name has changed and the new name is un-known. Perhaps there has been a relocation and the new residence is unknown and internet searches just aren’t yielding results. Perhaps there has been a death. Or perhaps what went before created a physically or mentally dangerous situation and it is best to not re-establish contact. But even without contact, there can be forgiveness.
I once read of a teacher who, on the first day of school, assigned her students to bring a potato and a zippered, re-sealable plastic bag for an assignment. The next day those students were instructed to carry the potatoes, in the zippered bags, for the first grading period, and then the lesson of the potatoes would be revealed. Of course some students did not complete the assignment. Potatoes were lost, left on the bus, tossed away in silly games, thrown away as it was evident they were decomposing, etc., but for the students who completed the assignment, at the end of the first term, the teacher asked them to consider the state of the potato. The potatoes were placed on desks and examined. Most were a stinky, rotting mess. As they unzipped their bags, even the students without potatoes were affected by the rotten odor. The teacher then asked the students to reflect on lessons they learned from the assignment. In their responses, students stated that at first it had been novel to keep up with the potato, to talk about it, to explain why they were carrying a potato in a plastic bag, but after awhile, it became a burden, and even though they wished to put it down, they felt the duty to keep carrying the potato. For some, it simply became a habit and they carried it naturally as it became a part of who they were for those few weeks. Most stated they were proud to have been able to keep up with the potato, even as it began to soften and smell bad.
The teacher listened to all responses without comment, and then she explained, “When we hold grudges, and do not extend forgiveness, it’s like these potatoes. Sometimes we get extra attention because of them and we talk about them repeatedly to our friends and family, even to strangers. For some people the grudge becomes a burden, but they don’t want to put it down, to let it go, to forget, to be vulnerable again. They determine to always be mindful so they won’t get hurt or insulted or slighted or left out or misunderstood again. They carry that rotting potato with them and even though it stinks and they’d like to be rid of it, they will carry it as a reminder to never forget. Some people will carry the grudge and never acknowledge the burden it is. The grudge becomes a habit and they put up a wall, not realizing they have walled themselves in with the grudge, and while the person who caused the hurt can’t get in, neither can the hurt one get out. Meanwhile, the grudges, like the potatoes, continue to rot and fester and smell up our own environment and to affect those around us.” The teacher had given her students a priceless lesson on not being easily offended, as well as the impact and value of forgiveness. She reported that the atmosphere of her classroom changed immediately as students made the connection between the slights, errors and bumps of everyday life with humans, and the bagged potatoes. They realized they had control to discard the potatoes and not have to bear those offensive burdens anymore.
Forgiveness can be hard. The longer we carry that potato, it may seem impossible. Or it might become more comfortable to carry it than to put it down, but if we can find a way to it, if we can allow forgiveness to rule each day, we can have the peace we long for, the joy we crave, and we can not only hope to see light, but we can be light as we bring that peace and joy to our corner of the world.
Excuse me, I think I might need to go clean out my potato bin…