As part of her research for her book The Rise, on failure and creativity, Sarah Lewis spent an afternoon observing the Columbia University archery team. She met them on their practice field, on the northern tip of Manhattan, where they held their daily three-hour practice.
The nature of the sport – releasing arrows at up to 150 mph aimed at targets 75 yards away – means safety is paramount, so archery, she observes, is a sport “mastered largely out of sight.”
On this afternoon, the team was preparing for upcoming national competition. She watched as they drew and let loose arrow after arrow, “hoisting 50 pounds of equipment – a compound or recurve bow – time and again, aiming at a target 75 yards away.” From where the archers stand, the bulls-eye -worth 10 points – “looks as small as a matchstick tip held out at arm’s length. Hitting the 8-ring means piercing a circle the size of a hole in a bagel from 225 feet away.”
Sara Lewis was amazed not only by the physical stamina of the archers, but by the mental, almost spiritual, capacity they exhibited. Archery, she note, requires constant reinvention of self – “seeing yourself as the person who can hit a ten when you just hit a nine, as an archer who just hit a seven, but can also hit an eight.”
Lewis came away with deep admiration for the archers. This kind of labor is a seriousness of purpose rarely seen, but core to creating. “Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms – these are labors,” she declares.
I want to add one thing to her list of labors: Forgiveness. Forgiveness is a labor that is core to creating. When we forgive, we free ourselves and the person we forgive from emotional constraints and make room for new possibilities. Our forgiveness might invigorate, encourage, or change someone’s sense of identity. Forgiveness is part of how we participate, then, in the holy work of creation.
Forgiveness is also labor. It doesn’t come naturally to us. It’s not easy.
Scripture, history textbooks, the headlines, and the wounds we carry inside us testify to how hard it is to forgive.
Just as someone is unlikely to take up archery without seeing it practiced, forgiveness is hard to imagine unless we see others forgiving one another. We need models to give us hope and coaching and a glimpse of this being something people do.
And unfortunately, our culture doesn’t give us many models of forgiveness. Our public discourse and our popular culture instead model shaming, dismissing, belittling, distancing. Intolerant, loud voices are given the most airtime (look at presidential race so far; look at talk radio).
There are lots of theories for why the church is having a hard time holding its own in our era. I wonder whether one significant factor is this: We call on people to forgive. And that call to forgiveness, in our culture, is almost incoherent. It’s too much. It’s dismissed as just crazy talk.
But we cannot set it aside. Forgiveness is at the center of our faith. It is at the center of who we understand God to be.
Paul write to the Ephesians: Be angry, but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger….Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another… Elsewhere, in the gospels, Jesus tells us, Pray for your enemies. And from the cross, Jesus says to the Father of those who betrayed him and crucified him, Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.
How to we approach this commandment to forgive? It takes practice; we’re likely to miss the mark many times before we hit the bulls-eye of forgiveness. As you may know, the Hebrew word for sin is metaphorical: it means, “missing the mark. “ The ancient Hebrew understanding of sin was that it was like shooting an arrow and missing the target, which is loving-kindness. So what does “forgiveness practice” look like.
Well, it begins with Paul’s instruction: Be angry but do not sin. Anger is OK in scripture. David gets angry. The psalmist gets angry. Jesus gets angry enough in the Temple to overturn tables. And he gets angry at the some Jewish leaders for using their religious rites and rules to oppress and exclude.
Be angry, then…but do not sin. In other words, do not let your anger lead to (1) degrading someone or denying their dignity (which would be a denial of the promise you made at your baptism), nor to (2) broken relationship.
Paul’s words offer further help. Be imitators of God, he advises. This means we should:
- engage rather than retreating: talk to people, not dismissing them, but sharing honestly with hope of reconciliation coming.
- expect people to be human. We are all works in progress. Christians are not perfect. No one is. And so we understand whomever we are angry at as a child of God in the process of being formed by the hands of the potter, just as we are, and we engage them in the faith that that engagement might be part of how they become conformed more fully to the image of Christ.
- be open to changing your mind. “Help me God to learn about myself. Help me to see where I may have tripped up, how I may have something to learn here.” It is possible that our anger is not as righteous as we might think it to be. Breathe. Listen. Get the facts. Reflect on your assumptions.
- Remember that anger an often an outward expression of other things – often, fear. What is my fear? What might be threatened about my sense of self, my pride, my core values. Invite God to help you surface deep fears that need healing and to grow in self-knowledge and wisdom.
We do all of this labor of forgiving not because Jesus calls us to be nice or milquetoast people. We do this because we have been forgiven. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore, be imitators of God, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, a fragrant offering and a sacrifice to God. Christ gave himself away. He is the bread broken for us. Practicing forgiveness is our way of being Christ for this world.
At the fraction, I often follow the official words of invitation to communion with unofficial ones taken from St. Augustine: “Be what you see; receive who you are.”
In Christ, who was “broken for us,” you have been invited home to God. And you have been made part of a Body of Christ called to “broken” of its pride and complacency for others. Am I willing to forgive – to have my ego broken open? Am I willing to see in the other a beloved creation – flawed like me but beloved, nonetheless?
Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting. Forgiveness doesn’t mean you have to be best friends. It is a labor of opening ourselves up to the creation and recreation God yearns for in us and in others.
Desmond Tutu and others who have worked through enormous oppression and experienced social evils at their worst have created the Forgiveness Project to help equip people for the labor of forgiveness. As they explain, Forgiveness is not a “pancake move.”
“Feelings cannot just be flipped, but you can tilt the balance in the direction towards the discovery of a new way of operating in the world. Hatred and resentment have a tight grip in the same way that the more one focuses on a problem the more engrained it becomes. Forgiveness results in a loosening of that tight grip. It generates space and creates capacity to doubt, modify and think anew.” (www.the forgivenessproject.com)
Yes, there are times when forgiveness seems impossible. And then, our prayer is a silent one of standing before God, holding the person in the light, and trusting God to do whatever God can do, acknowledging our limited capacity as humans. That place is probably farther away than we think it should be.
Archers don’t practice alone. It’s not safe or effective. If our community is a real church, then it’s a place where we can support one another in this hard, counter-cultural, non-intuitive work. It’s place where we be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as Christ forgives each of us. Let us make it so through our practice of forgiveness and our return each week to this altar for the bread of life. Let us be what we see there; let us receive who we are from our merciful Savior.