January 6, 2019: "The Gift of Letting Go"

January 6, 2019                                                                              Rev. Rhonda Blevins

The Gift of Letting Go

Matthew 2:1-12

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:

‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
    who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared.  Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.

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 A man had some time off from work, so he decided to tackle a few projects around the house. First up: painting the family room. He got up early on painting day and drove to the hardware store to buy the red paint his wife had selected, roller head, paintbrushes—he made sure to get one of those little wooden stirring sticks. When he got home, he pulled out other supplies he already had—the drop cloth, paint pans and roller. He tucked the pan and roller under one arm, the drop cloth under the other arm. He draped the bag with paintbrushes and roller head over his arm, stuck the stirring stick in his mouth, and picked up the two big buckets of red paint. The guy was determined to make it inside in only one trip! As he waddled to the front door, he discovered a problem. The door. Between where he was, loaded down with supplies, and the living room where he wanted to be, there was a door. He believed he could push down the door handle with an elbow, and nudge open the door with his shoulder. Success! The door swung open, but as he stepped inside the foyer, he didn’t quite clear the four-inch step at the entryway, so he tripped into the house! The drop cloth went one way, the paint pan the other. The stirring stick flew out of his mouth at the same time as the expletive. And soon, he found himself lying on his living room floor, red paint all over him in what must have looked like quite the crime scene. As he lay there covered in faux blood, he thought to himself, “If I could do that over again, I might change some things.”

 This poor guy serves as a metaphor for each of us. Call it determination or outright stubbornness; we do this with paint or groceries, love or pain. “It’s such a simple thing,” writes Mark Nepo, “but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: We cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.”[1]

 Today, after all the gifts have been given and received, the wrapping paper and bows out with last week’s trash, I want you to consider the idea of a New Year’s gift—the gift of letting go. This isn’t a gift you wrap and put under a tree. This is a gift you give primarily to yourself as you open the door into this New Year. If you’re like me, there are plenty of things to leave behind as you step into 2019 and all of the opportunity and all of the challenges that this year has in store. The Magi left behind gold, frankincense and myrrh—undoubtedly making their load a little lighter as they fled from Herod by taking a road less traveled.

 The gift I’m inviting you to consider, at first glance, appears to be given to someone else. But the real beneficiary of this gift is the one who gives it. The gift of which I speak is the gift of forgiveness. The ultimate gift of letting go. So as the Magi journey home by another way, I invite you to journey with me through three true stories of forgiveness.

 True Story #1
When Nancy and her husband, Ron, got back together following a time of separation caused primarily by her infidelity, they sat down with her wise father who challenged them to get it right this time. He cautioned them against making the same mistakes again, and challenged them to deal with Ron’s feelings of betrayal and Nancy’s feelings of guilt lest it become unbearable. He said they couldn’t move on until Ron made one of the most important decisions of his life.

 He asked them if Nancy had apologized for what she had done. They agreed that she had. Then he said, “Did she ask you to forgive her?” “Not exactly,” Ron confessed.

Then he said, “Nancy, when you tell someone you’re sorry, it’s different from asking for forgiveness. Your ‘sorry-ness’ is your decision. But when you ask someone to forgive you—that’s their decision. It’s difficult because it gives all the power to the other person.” Then he turned to Ron and said, “When you forgive someone, you make a choice to banish the offense from your mind and your heart. You can never use it against that person again. If you choose not to forgive—if you want to hold on to the pain, or punish her and keep the wound open—if you choose that, I don’t think you’ll stay married.”

 Nancy’s voice trembled as she asked her father, “I want to ask Ron to forgive me, but what do I say?”

 “Tell him what you want to be forgiven for and then simply ask him. Then Ron will decide whether or not to forgive. You ask; he answers. It’s the simplest thing you two will ever do—and the hardest.”

 Nancy was so afraid that Ron wouldn’t respond to her plea for forgiveness; she spoke quickly so as not to lose the safety of the moment. “Ron, I’ve betrayed you mentally, spiritually, and physically. I’ve lied to you and deceived you. I have no defense or excuse. I’ve sinned against God and you. Will you please forgive me?”

 Ron looked straight into Nancy’s eyes and responded, “You have betrayed me, but I choose to forgive you.”

 Twenty-six years later and they say that their marriage is stronger than ever.[2]

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 True Story #2
John was just a kid during the Christmas of 1949. His family didn’t have a Christmas tree that year. His mother said they couldn’t afford one and even if they could it was stupid to clutter up your house with a dead tree. But John, in his naïveté, thought that if they only had a tree that everyone would feel better.

 Young John had a paper route, and he had a customer who hadn’t paid for a couple of months. He decided to swing by and collect, and to his surprise, the customer was there, she paid her bill, and even gave him a tip! Eight whole dollars!

 On his way home John passed by a Christmas tree lot and decided to take a look. Being so close to the holiday the trees had been picked through, but there was one very nice tree left. It had been a very expensive tree, but Christmas day was fast approaching and the salesman was motivated. When John offered his eight dollars, the man agreed, and John drug his prize home.

 John was so proud! He couldn’t wait for his parents to see it. He propped the tree up on the front porch, and went inside bursting with joy as he announced that he had surprise. When his mom and dad came to the door, he switched on the porch light.

 “Where did you get that tree?” exclaimed his mother, obviously upset.

 John described how he was able to purchase the tree with money from his paper route.

“You spent the whole eight dollars on this tree?” she remarked.

 His mom went into a tirade about how stupid it was to spend money on a dumb tree that would be thrown out and burned in a few days. She told him he was irresponsible, like his father, with foolish notions about fairy tales and happy endings. She preached about “getting some sense” and not spending money on silly things. As John began to cry, his mother snapped off the porch light, stormed up the stairs, and didn’t come down until the next day.

 John and his father brought the tree in and tried to decorate it. By Christmas day there were some presents under the tree, but his mother didn’t participate. John remembers the Christmas of 1949 as the worst ever.

 John grew up and had a family of his own. After his dad died, his mother came to stay with him and his family during the holidays. Often at Christmastime, John remembered that terrible Christmas of long ago. He found himself brushing away the haunting memory that particular Christmas Eve. He couldn’t sleep, so he was reading in the living room. His mom couldn’t sleep either, so she got up to make some tea. They began to talk as the tea brewed. John told his mom he was glad she was with them for Christmas, and that he wished his dad could have seen his grandchildren enjoy the season because he always loved Christmas so much.

 His mom became quiet, and finally said, “Do you remember when you bought a Christmas tree with your paper route money?” John confessed he did. His mom hesitated for a moment as years of pain rose up from the depths to the surface until tears streamed down her face.

 “Son, please forgive me,” she cried. “That Christmas has been a burden on my heart for 25 years. I wish your dad were here so I could tell him how sorry I am for what I said that night.”

 She described how stressed she had been that Christmas, how they were two months behind on their house payments, how they had no money for groceries, and how she and his father were fighting all the time. She confessed, “I took it all out on you. It doesn’t make it right, but I hoped that someday you would understand. I’ve wanted to say something for so long.”

 John and his mom cried as they held each other. He forgave his mother that night. John says that the bitterness and sadness inside him all those years gradually washed away.[3]

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 True Story #3
A friend of mine gave me permission to tell her story of letting go. When she was a girl, every Friday when the whistle blew, her father started drinking, and the liquor made the demons come out. After a couple of drinks he would come home in an angry rage, unleashing hell onto their mother verbally and sometimes physically. When one of the kids would step in to protect their mother, they’d get their own dose of abuse as well. She dreaded every weekend, because it would be the same thing again. Drinking on Friday and Saturday, unleashing hell at home, pleading for forgiveness on Sunday while he sobered up to get ready for another week at work.

 She talks about how she tried to protect her younger siblings, and how she couldn’t wait to get away from home. When she grew up, she carried not only resentment for her father, but outright hatred. That hatred, she admits, affected her own marriage and her own family. She says that she was never at peace with herself because deep down, she hated her father.

Her father grew older along the way, too. He grew ill. Her mother was unable to care for him; her siblings couldn’t find it in themselves to provide much care. It was my friend who bore the burden of caring for her ailing father. But there was that nagging hatred for all of the misery he caused her and her whole family throughout her entire childhood. She couldn’t provide the care he needed while simultaneously carrying that kind of hatred inside her.

 She said, “I couldn’t handle it with my dad. This love/hate relationship.” I asked her what changed. She said, “God told me to get over it.”

 Over the course of a few days, she made two lists. First she made a list of everything good about her father. She wrote down things about him being a good provider for their family, about how he never missed a day of work. She filled a sheet of paper with her father’s good qualities.

 Then she made another list on a separate sheet of paper. She wrote down everything she hated about her father. She wrote down every abusive thing he had said and done. Every miserable deed she could remember. She wrote it all down. Every ugly thing.

 After a day or two and much prayer, she ripped up the sheet of ugliness. Ripped it to shreds. She forgave her father that day for everything he had ever done. Then she gave him the care of a loving daughter during his last years on earth.

 She said, “It gave me such a peace to be able to see the good in him. Now I don’t even think about the bad. I only think of the good.”

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 “It gave me such a peace,” she said. Her gift of forgiveness was a gift to her father, but primarily a gift to herself as well. “It gave me such a peace,” she said. And so it goes with the gift of letting go.

 As we stand at the threshold of another year, what resentments are keeping you from stepping into 2019? What might it feel like to begin the New Year unencumbered by the weight of grievance, anger or hatred? “It’s such a simple thing, but in a moment of ego we refuse to put down what we carry in order to open the door. Time and time again, we are offered the chance to truly learn this: We cannot hold on to things and enter. We must put down what we carry, open the door, and then take up only what we need to bring inside.”[4]

 Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

 

[1] Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2011, 3.

[2] Adapted from Nancy C. Anderson, “Victory Through Surrender” in The Gift of Letting Go: Powerful Stories of Forgiveness. Bordon Books: 2005, pp. 197-201.

[3] Adapted from John William Smith, “The Gift of Forgiveness,” Men Today Online.  http://mentodayonline.com/christmas/forgiveness.html

[4] Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have. San Francisco: Conari Press, 2011, 3.

Debbie Wilson