“What’s on Your Christmas Gift List?”
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a day that represents peace. Is giving and receiving peace on your Christmas list? How do you wrap up peace? Join us in this exploration of Being the Light of Peace.
Speaker: Rev. Chris Kell
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When available, a revised transcript of this week’s talk is provided below for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Prayers, readings, and songs from this week’s service are also provided below.
What’s on Your Christmas Gift List?
Today is the fourth Sunday of Advent, a day that represents peace. The last purple candle, called the Angels Candle or Christmas Candle, is lit on the fourth Sunday. Later this week, on Christmas Eve, the center candle is lit. Traditionally, this is the “Christ Candle” and it represents purity and the life of the Christ who has come to light the world.
Celebrating Advent entails spending time in spiritual preparation for the coming birth of Jesus at Christmas. Many Christians celebrate Advent not only by thanking God for Christ’s first coming to Earth as a baby, but also for his presence among us today through the Holy Spirit.
Most of us are likely familiar with The Christmas Story and the Birth of Jesus. If you would like to read the story for yourself, you can find it in The New Testament of the Bible. There are actually two Christmas story versions. They appear in Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2. They have some points in common, but there are differences, so it may be of interest to you to read both.
Today I am going to tell you another story. Of course, this story is in no way comparable to the Christmas Story, and nowhere near as significant and universal. However, although the story is unique in that it is about one separate human individual, it does describe a common human theme.
It’s a story about forgiveness.
This story starts a few weeks ago, one night when I was lying in bed unable to sleep. It had been an unhappy day, with angry words and hurt feelings. As I lay there, thoughts whirling around in my head like they do in the wee hours, I found myself thinking about how I had gotten to a point in my life when I felt hurt and sad more often that I felt happy and joyful. Why was that, I wondered; what was I doing wrong?
Now, I believe that each of us chooses our path, consciously or unconsciously, and each of us is responsible and accountable for the choices we make. That night, the more I thought about it, the more I came to see that my unhappiness has been mostly my own doing. After all, I am the only one in charge of me, and no one but me. The same is true for all of us. Our choices define us, and that night I did not like the definition of me I was looking at.
It also occurred to me that I was expecting those around me to accept me as I am, but I was not doing the same for them. I wanted them to conform to my idea of what is acceptable behavior, what decisions I would choose to make if I were them. This night, I began to truly examine my own attitudes and I realized in a visceral way how it is much simpler to blame others for their behavior rather than face up to my own.
And then the ever-whirling turmoil of questions began. I wondered, what is the other’s responsibility in this? Does that, or should that even matter? After all, the only person I am responsible for, have any control over, is myself. And I can turn the other cheek. My question is, how often do I have to do that? I wrestle with how do I forgive something that is repeated over and over again? After bearing the hurt is it always and only up to me to be the repentant one? Am I being too judgmental? Is looking for justice and accountability being unforgiving? Am I simply looking for a way to excuse myself? Does acceptance make me a saint, or just a doormat?
And then, there’s forgiveness of myself for all the bad behavior on my part, verbal and spiritual. I’ve always been super hard on myself for what I see as my own transgressions: rejections, attachments, blaming others, and the unwillingness to forgive. Am I too inflexible? Is there an invisible line or barrier somewhere in front of me I don’t see or understand that holds me back from a total commitment to love?
So, how do people learn how to forgive; how do I learn how to forgive? That night I started to seriously consider this question.
Forgiving starts with the intention to forgive; you have to want to forgive. As Rev. Joann Biewald of the Center for Spiritual Living here in Minneapolis puts it, we have to “be willing, to be willing, to forgive.” This tells me that forgiveness is a unique process, and that, like our spiritual journey itself, it may take several starts and stops with some bumps along the way. On the other hand, the process could be completed in the instant it takes to move from one thought to the next.
But first I needed to think about what forgiveness is. The definition of forgiving is to cease to feel resentment against an offender; to give up resentment; to let go of past grudges or lingering anger against a person or persons. According to Wiki, forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense, lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness, and experiences an increased ability to wish the offender well.
Forgiveness is about accepting, letting go, and loving unconditionally. I was arrogantly and mistakenly proud of myself because for a long time I thought that was what I was doing. But really, I never truly saw with my heart, only my head. It is always about first seeing the Divine in each other, particularly those closest to us, and laying aside the ego’s desire for retribution. It calls for humility and humbleness, generosity and compassion, loving-kindness and mercy.
Engaging in this process enables me to get out of my head, to get out of myself, to take the focus off myself and really see the other person as well as myself with no judgment, only love and compassion, and with gratitude for their very existence as a fellow human being and companion on our journey to the Light.
Roger Walsh, in his book Essential Spirituality, writes that the Desert Fathers and Mothers had an elegant technique for forgiveness that is still practiced by several religions today. If they needed to forgive someone, they gave that person a gift. Nothing big or elaborate, simply a tangible sign of forgiving and putting aside anger. After all, it is hard to either give or receive a gift and remain angry.
Buddhist meditation teacher Jack Kornfield says that for most people, forgiveness is a process that can go through many stages, especially if the hurt is deep. Yet, if we let ourselves feel the pain, working through the stages of grief, rage, sorrow, fear, and confusion, in the end forgiveness will be a relief, a release for our heart. It is most powerful and encompassing if it extends in three directions: the request for forgiveness from those we’ve hurt; forgiveness for ourselves; forgiveness for those who have hurt us. His advice? Be patient and gentle with yourself.
Kornfield tells us that,
“forgiveness is the heart’s capacity to release its grasp on the pains of the past and free itself to go on. In the end, forgiveness simply means never putting another person out of our heart.”
In their book The Book of Forgiving, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and his daughter Rev. Mpho Tutu call this journey the Fourfold Path of Forgiving: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, and Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. It is a healing, transformational journey for the one who forgives, and possibly for the one who is forgiven.
According to the Tutu’s and many of those who teach us about forgiveness, our humanity is bound up in one another, and any tear in the fabric of connection between us must be repaired for us all to be made whole. This interconnectedness is the very root of who we are, and forgiveness is nothing less than how we bring peace to ourselves and our world.
There have been times when each of us has needed to forgive, just as there have been times when we have needed to be forgiven. In our own ways, we are each broken. To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that the hurt you cause me harms you as it harms me. To walk the path of forgiveness is to recognize that my dignity is bound up in your dignity, and every wrongdoing hurts us all.
Fr. Richard Rohr puts it this way, saying:
“Jesus, many mystics, Indigenous cultures, and other wisdom traditions show an alternative path toward healing. In these traditions, transgressions are an opportunity for the transformation of the person harmed, the person causing harm, and the community. Our best self wants to restore relationships, and not just blame or punish.”
Yet, even when we recognize our interconnectedness, forgiveness can be a difficult path to walk. It is a journey, and before the beginning of any journey, there must be a willingness to take the first step. And in the end, the path of forgiving is the only path worth taking.
Ultimately, forgiveness is a choice we make and the ability to forgive others comes from the recognition that we are all flawed and all human. Forgiveness is something we freely offer to another, a gift we bestow upon someone with no strings attached. Our forgiveness is not dependent on the repentance or restitution of the other. Insisting on conditions – I’ll forgive you if your will “fill in the blank” – simply keeps us chained to the person who hurt us. If that person decides to ignore the conditions, we are hurt all over again and continue to be the victim.
Forgiving requires giving voice to the violations and naming the pains we have suffered. And healing does not mean that what happened will never again cause us to hurt. Moreover, there is always a risk when we forgive that everything will not turn out all right, especially if we have expectations and conditions about what we want to happen. We take a leap of faith when we commit ourselves to the journey of forgiving.
We all know what it’s like to feel hurt and pain. There is no way to go through life without being hurt or hurting others. While some incidents are more tragic are life-altering than others, the feeling of suffering is very real for all of us. The difference between those who find peace and those who do not is their ability to discover the gift of forgiveness.
C. S. Lewis wrote,
“Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea until they have something to forgive.”
Reaching a state of true and complete forgiveness is not like a Hallmark movie where someone gets hurt and two or three scenes later all is forgiven. It can take weeks, months, even years to sort out our emotions and let the pain heal.
People can hurt us in a million ways, and forgiveness isn’t always easy. We’ve all had opportunities to forgive – or to withhold forgiveness. All too often we feel comfort in our anger and pain, and the idea of not having it to lean on can be uncomfortable, even scary. Whether we’ve received it or given it, or whether we’re still struggling with it, none of us is a stranger to the need to forgive.
Undertaking a path of forgiveness can guide us on a journey during which we both give and receive many gifts along the way: gifts such as understanding, compassion, tenderness and tolerance, mercy, reconciliation, trust, faith, and finally peace and freedom.
The act of true forgiveness is both a gift we give ourselves and one we can offer to others. On any given day, how, when – and if we forgive at all – are choices that will shape the rest of our lives. Withholding forgiveness prevents us from walking the path to a place where we can truly and completely accept these gifts. But reaching that heart space of forgiveness, of unconditional love, of recognizing the divine in even the worst of us – that is the gift.
As we walk the path of forgiveness, we come to understand more deeply the gift we are bestowing upon another – and, when offered, the gift bestowed upon ourselves. We receive that same gift when we are blessed with forgiveness for what we have done to another. We heal as we forgive and are forgiven; we are free. Our dignity is restored and we are able to move forward in our lives.
The journey of forgiveness asks much of us, sometimes more than we think we can give. However, the gifts and the freedom that are granted to us along the way are beyond measure. And we do not have to walk that path alone.
That night in Bethlehem, one tiny little baby came into this world to bring us all this most miraculous of gifts, and he showed us how to unwrap the package by giving us a lifetime of examples.
In Hebrews 4:15, in speaking about Jesus it says,
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet is without sin. Let us then, with confidence, draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Jesus experienced everything of human life, including forgiveness. He illustrates what forgiveness is throughout his healing ministry. In fact, Fr. Richard Rohr tells us that almost two-thirds of Jesus’ teaching is directly or indirectly about forgiveness. Jesus understands our life challenges because he lived them just the way we do. He was hurt and betrayed by those he loved, who claimed to love him, yet he forgave them all, even a complete stranger with his dying breath. Jesus showed us that nothing is unforgiveable, but he also warned us that we would be judged in the same way we judge others.
There is both a strength and a vulnerability to forgiveness; it does not ignore the truth of our suffering, nor does it offer excuses. Forgiveness is not weak. It takes courage to grieve, to honor the pain we carry. We can grieve in tears or in meditative silence, in prayer or song, or dance. Opening to the pain of recent and long-held griefs, we come face to face with our sadness, our vulnerability and fear, helpless and hopeless.
Yet, when we forgive we can also say, “Never again will I allow these things to happen,” resolving to never again permit such harm to come to ourselves or another. And at the same time we can also resolve to release the past and not carry bitterness and hate in our hearts. Forgiveness gives us the freedom to move on. Only forgiveness and love can set us free, can bring about the peace we long for.
Ultimately, the gift of forgiveness is about empowerment. It’s about realizing that you are the only one who controls your destiny. But as long as you continue to harbor resentment and anger, you are giving your power to the one who hurt you.
Just as seeking revenge or “pay back” is a choice we make, so is forgiving. We can choose retribution or we can choose reconciliation, choose to harm or to heal. As Archbishop Tutu says,
“Forgiveness is rarely easy, but it is always possible.”
When we forgive completely, Fr. Rohr tells us that is when we experience God’s goodness flowing through us, and we experience our own capacity for goodness and love in a way that can surprise us. With the act of forgiveness, we are in touch with a much Higher Power, and we slowly learn how to draw upon this Infinite Source of strength, compassion, and grace.
Maybe you’ve heard the expression “forgiveness is the gift you give yourself.” It is also a gift you can give your loved ones, your friends, even strangers, every day, not just on Christmas. And as we walk the path of forgiveness, we come to understand more deeply the true nature of this gift. Even when unearned and undeserved, forgiveness bestowed and received is always the pure work of divine grace. The act of forgiving allows us to see Christ in the other, and it allows us to experience the divinity in ourselves in a new way.
Jesus came to bring us the gift of peace, and he showed us how to open the door to receiving it when he gave us the gift of his birth on that first Christmas so long ago.
Forgiveness truly is the gift that keeps on giving, but you can’t buy it and wrap it up with a pretty bow. Forgiveness is the heart of Christmas, as taught by Jesus, the Christ, the true Gift of Light given to us all.
Forgiveness is a gift given to us each Christmas. It’s up to us to make the choice to accept and open that gift.
I wish you all a very blessed, happy, and peaceful Christmas.
About Rev. Christine Kell
Rev. Chris Kell is an Interfaith/Interspiritual Minister, an ordained graduate of One Spirit Interfaith Seminary, a graduate of the Priestess Emergence Process, and a Certified Life Success Consultant. She has a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, with concentrations in Women’s Studies and Small Group Communication, and post-graduate studies in Feminine Spirituality. Rev. Chris has a deep appreciation for the aspirations of the human spirit. She has been fortunate in discovering how nurturing and supportive a positive environment can be, how it encourages spiritual strength and expands the possibilities for living a good life. Her goal is to be a catalyst for others in envisioning and discovering for themselves a spiritually enriched life. She can be reached at Rev.ChristineKell@gmail.com.
Today’s reading comes from The Book of Forgiving, by Desmond Tutu and Mpho (M-poh ) Tutu and is read by Maria Terc.
We invite you to lay down your sorrows and trust that nothing will be asked of you that you are not able to give. To get to that end, we must make a beginning, a first step. But first, let us pause to listen to what the heart hears.
You have stood at this junction before
You will stand at this junction again
And if you pause you can ask yourself
Which way to turn
You can turn away from your own sadness
And run the race named revenge
You will run that tired trace again and again
Or you can admit your own pain
And walk the path that ends
In this direction lies freedom, my friend
I can show you where hope and wholeness make their homes
But you can’t push past your anguish on your way there
To find the path to peace
You will have to meet your pain
And speak its name.
“O Tannenbaum” written by Ernst Anschütz
“Solstice Carol” written by Jan Garrett
“Feliz Navidad” written by José Feliciano
This service aired on December 19, 2021