Date: February 2, 2014
Bible Text: Philippians 3:1; 12-16 | Reverend Donald Dempsey
“Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead”
One day, the church receptionist informed me that my daughter was on the phone, and she needed to ask me a question. When I finally picked up the phone and said, “What is it?” “Oh Dad, I am sorry I forgot what I was going to ask you!” My response: “Well it must not have been very important if you forgot it.” She came back as quick as a flash: “Dad, don’t you know that people sometimes forget some of the most important things in the world?”
Forgetting important things can get our lives out of focus. But forgetting, and our obvious capacity to forget, is not necessarily a negative component in our mental makeup. Some things should be forgotten so we can move on without the unnecessary emotional baggage of negative memories.
When some negative feeling or attitude is hurting us, or hurting someone we love, it is good for our psychological and spiritual health to intentionally toss it into the wastebasket of forgetfulness. That’s not always easy, but it is possible. People who learn to do this are usually able to keep their lives facing forward and on-track. Those who cannot or will not, often are the source of great misery to themselves—and to others.
When a painful broken relationship is over, it is very important to be able to forget the details, and the hatred and the resentment it has generated, and remember only the lesson learned. People get “bent out of shape” over political and theological beliefs and refuse to be civil to those who disagree with them. Disputes over the church’s stance on the social issues of the day create more hard feelings and broken relationships than most people would imagine. People leave the church or refuse to speak to some people when they come to church. It can even happen over some of the most frivolous things. The history of that sort of behavior goes all the way back to some of the very first Christian churches established by the apostle Paul. Read Paul’s letters to the churches and you will find it there. You do not have to look very far in any social setting to find examples of how people get their feelings hurt and cannot seem to “let it go” or just plain “forget it!”
This past week I read a good book entitled, An Unexpected Grace, by Kristin von Kreisler. The main character is Lila Elliot. The book begins as Lila was involved in a shooting rampage at her office that left several colleagues dead and others seriously wounded including herself. Lila’s injuries will heal in time.
After several weeks in the hospital, she gratefully retreats to her best friend, Cristina’s house to recuperate, but Lila can’t move past her fear and anger. She ends up housesitting for Cristina, and she is also drafted into caring for Grace – a shaggy, formerly abused golden retriever, which only adds to her stress since she has been terrified of dogs since childhood.
Lila is a prime example of a person who has a history of not being able to “let it go,” or “to forget it.” More than anything else she wants to know why the bad things in her life have happened. She desperately wants to make sense out of what just recently happened. Cristina says to her that she will never understand what prompted the shooter’s violence; and she tells her emphatically “Asking why is pointless. Just leave it! … No sane person would shoot a bunch of people. Forget it.”
Yet Lila is a person who is consumed with figuring out why things happen in one’s life, particularly the bad things. Enter Betsy, Lila’s physical therapist. Betsy at her first session with Lila ran her fingertip over Lila’s leg and said, “You’ve got proud flesh, the name comes from swelling.”
Lila said, Maybe my flesh is swollen and red because it’s still mad at the bullet.” Betsy replied, “And you are still mad at the man who shot you”?
“I hate him, I can’t help it.
“That’s not helpful for your spirit. The only person your anger hurts is you.”
At “home” Grace, the golden retriever, at first keeps her distance from Lila, she senses her fear and distrust of dogs. Grace has her own story, she is a dog recently rescued, and she had gone through great suffering through no fault of her own. As the story develops and as Lila struggles to make sense of her recent tragedy, Lila begins to see the beauty in Grace’s wisps of fur and haunted eyes, and the two of them begin to help each other heal.
We should be careful when we admonish people to “forgive and forget.” Forgiving is not contingent on forgetting—at least not literally forgetting. It is a wonderful gift of grace to be willing and able to literally forget.
William Barclay, noted author and biblical scholar, tells the story of the famous Scottish man of letters, Andrew Lang, who wrote and published a very kind review of a book by a young man. The young man repaid him with a bitter and an insulting attack.
Three years later, Andrew Lang was staying with Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate of Scotland. Bridges saw Lang reading a book by the same young man who had so disrespectfully attacked him. He said to Lang: “Why, that is another book by that ungrateful young cub who behaved so shamefully to you.” To his astonishment, he discovered that Andrew Lang’s mind was completely blank on the whole matter. He had completely forgotten the bitter and insulting attack. “To forgive,” said Bridges, “was the sign of a great man, but to forget was sublime.”
Literally forgetting is a great blessing, but our minds are not always able to completely eliminate a particular event from consciousness. It is helpful and healing to intentionally refuse to replay a harmful incident over and over. An emotional wound, like a physical wound, will properly heal if we don’t continue to pick at the scab as it tries to heal. To forget is to stop picking at the wound. When a wound heals it may leave a scar, but the pain will be gone. It is spiritually dangerous for us to repeatedly tell others (and ourselves) that we will never forget “how we were treated” or “what so-and-so did to me.” To repeat it is to peel away the scab and reopen the wound.
There’s a Peanuts cartoon that has Lucy standing in the outfield of Charlie Brown’s baseball team. As a fly ball sails toward her, she remembers all the other times she’s dropped the ball. You can guess what happens next: She drops this one, too.
Then Lucy calls out to Charlie Brown, who’s standing there on the pitcher’s mound: “I almost had it, but then my past got in my eyes!”
We need to just forget it! Yet forgetting is not all that easy, even when it seems necessary. We hate to give up our fantasies of getting even. They are such a comfort!
Back to the book, An Unexpected Grace:
At one of Lila’s physical therapy sessions, Betsy gently presses her fingers against Lila’s shoulder blades. “You’ve got a lot of tension here. Your shoulders are still cringing from terror.”
“I can’t help it.”
“It is involuntary,” Betsy said, as she pushed down her shoulders as if she were encouraging them into a straight and more trusting line. Our bodies show what we’re feeling in the present, but they also hold emotions from the past. I‘d say you are carrying a lot of stress.”
“I can’t get rid of it.”
“Sometimes it is difficult.” Betsy went on to tell her story to Lila, “when my husband died I went around hunched down with grief. It took me quite a long time to push my shoulders back and stand up straight again.”
“How did you get yourself to do that?”
“Thinking things through; seeing that my life was still good. Even though I was alone, I had lots to be thankful for.”
Lila said, “I have things to be thankful for also, but I’ve got lots of reasons to be mad, too. All I want is to get my life back in control.”
Betsy’s laughed, “You think we can control our lives?”
“We can clean up messes. We can straighten out things.”
“Oh honey, seems to me it’s more important to accept them. Then they usually straighten themselves out. The best way to fix your life is to go after what makes you happy. Forget the rest. I tell everyone who comes in here that joy is the greatest healer.” “Your life is going to be better too. This injury is going to be the best thing that ever happened to you.”
Clearing the way for a new beginning takes more than a fanciful wish.
Learning what to remember and what to forget and learning how to remember and how to forget are essential elements in the process of beginning again.
The thing to remember if you want to forget is the power of “intentional effort.” Just forget it!
Hear the scripture lesson from Philippians once again:
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do:
Forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Finally, my brothers and sisters, rejoice in the Lord.”