Saturday, September 17, 2011

Community requires forgiveness by Henri Nouwen

There are different types of community life you have probably been part of. There are probably some where you enjoy and you feel like part of its whole. There might also be some where you wish some of the underlying problems could be resolved before the community moves on. There might be a few where hurts and grievances are not given room to be expressed and healing is not taking place. Instead, these hurts and pains are hidden, and allowed to corrupt the goodness of the community unconsciously. Depending on the culture and source of authority within the community, some deem it a disgrace to air grievances, while some simply re-interpret the experience and put the source of blame squarely on those who are suffering. Some simply lack the experience and skill to handle hurt and grievance, and choose to ignore it. Recently, I come across Henri Nouwen’s Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the long walk of faith. There is a part on forgiveness within community that I would like to share with you, titled “Community requires forgiveness”.

Within the discipline of life in community are the twin gifts of forgiveness and celebration that need to be opened and used regularly. What is forgiveness? Forgiveness means that I continually am willing to forgive the other person for not fulfilling all my needs and desires. Forgiveness says, "I know you love me, but you don’t have to love me unconditionally, because only God can do that." I too must ask forgiveness for not being able to fulfill other peoples total needs, for no human being can do that.

We all have wounds. We all live in pain and disappointment. We all have feelings of loneliness that lurk beneath all our successes, feelings of uselessness that hide under all the praise, feelings of meaninglessness even when people say we are fantastic - and that is what makes us sometimes grab onto people and expect from them affection, affirmation, and love that they cannot give. If we want other people to give us something that only God can give, we are guilty of idolatry. We say, "Love me!” and before long we become demanding and manipulative. It is so important that we keep forgiving one another not once in a while but every moment of life. This is what makes community possible, when we can come together in a forgiving and undemanding way.

Our heart longs for satisfaction, for total communion. But human beings, whether it's your husband, your wife, your father, mother, brother, sister, or child, are all limited in giving the level of love and acceptance we all crave. But since we want so much and we get only part of what we want, we have to keep on forgiving people for not giving us all we want. So, I forgive you since you can only love me in a limited way. I forgive my mother that she is not everything I would like her to be. I forgive my father because he did the best he could. This is of enormous importance right now because constantly people look to blame their parents, their friends, and the church for not giving them what they need. Many people are so angry. They cannot forgive people for offering only limited expressions of an unlimited love. God's love is unlimited; our love is not. Any relationship you enter into - in communion, friendship, marriage, community, or church - will always be riddled with frustration and disappointment. So forgiveness becomes the word for divine love in the human context.

Community is not possible without the willingness to forgive one another "seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:22). Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us all together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.

As people who have hearts that long for perfect love, we have to forgive one another for not being able to give or receive that perfect love in our everyday lives. Our many needs constantly interfere with our desire to be there for the other unconditionally. Our love is always limited by spoken or unspoken conditions. What needs to be forgiven? We need to forgive one another for not being God!

(Henri Nouwen, Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the long walk of faith. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 2006. pp.119-120.)

When we project our needs onto others and expect them to fulfill it, we are bound to be disappointed and resentful, because we are unconsciously asking the others to be our superhero. We learn to put ourselves in others’ shoes when we realize that this is of no faults of others, and it is never easy to forgive when we ourselves are wounded in the first place. Unless we take the initiative to forgive, reconciliation will probably not take place. But the source of forgiveness does not come within ourselves, it comes from the God who loves us as who we are. I believe it is only when we recognize and acknowledge that each of us is a beloved child of God; that we have been forgiven by God for our trespasses; and deep within ourselves we realized we have received mercy and grace; only then should we continue to believe in the goodness of forgiving others. To forgive others is to break free of the chain that bind us to our hurt, pain and frustration.

However, forgiving others is easier said than done; it is even harder if the person is part of your community. Let us remember that Judas Iscariot was one of the twelve disciples, and lived with Jesus every day during Jesus’ ministry. Since I am not Jesus, how can I expect to be like Jesus? Jesus has set a prime example for all of us, and the Spirit within us is shaping us to conform to Christ’s image through a long and tedious process. (NRSV Ro. 8:29 For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.) Going back to Nouwen’s insights, “Forgiveness is the cement of community life. Forgiveness holds us all together through good and bad times, and it allows us to grow in mutual love.” As none of us is perfect, and recognizing our own limitations, it is by learning to forgive that we accept our own imperfections, our own limitations and the imperfections of others as well. Learning to forgive again and again is a process of acknowledging our mutual shortcomings, to create room for authentic love to take root, and to nourish the soil for authentic life in community to take place.

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