From Jailbird to Free Bird:
The Prison of Grudges

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached December 11, 2011 at Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, SC

Readings:
Psalm 32: "and you forgave the guilt of my sin."
Luke 6:27-38: "Forgive and you will be forgiven ..."
  Hear this sermon at the Jubilee! Circle Web site.

Our first song comes from former Eagle Don Henley. The Heart of the Matter appeared on Henley's third solo album in 1990 and hit #2 on Billboard's Mainstream Rock charts. It goes something like this:

Verse: I got the call today
And I didn't want to hear
But I knew that it would come
An old true friend of ours
Was talking on the phone
She said you'd found someone
And I thought of all the bad luck
And the struggles we went through
How I lost me, and you lost you
What are all these voices
Outside love's open door
Make us throw off our contentment
And beg for something more

Pre-Chorus: I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew
I'm learning again

Chorus: I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about
Forgiveness, Forgiveness
Even if, Even if you don't
love me anymore

I vividly remember the moment I got out of the prison of grudges. It was a drizzly July afternoon in 2002. I had made a journey to visit my father in Jekyll Island, Georgia. My dad is the person who put me firmly in this prison of grudges. I was in my 30s at this point - and had been in this prison since the age of 9 - so I was quickly becoming a lifer!

As a Southern Baptist minister, I remember him railing against the sins of adultery and divorce. In the late 60s and early 70s, these were the big sins being preached against from the Southern Baptist pulpit. Homosexuality had yet to even come onto the radar of conservative preachers.

Given my dad's position on these sins, it was a shock to my young system when he came home one day and told my mother that he wanted a divorce - because he had met, and fallen in love with, another woman. In that moment, the walls of the prison of grudges sprung up around me and the steel door slammed shut. I went through most of the emotions of grief - anger, denial, bargaining, and depression. I never really got to that final stage of acceptance, however.

That, Jubilants, is what keeps us in our prison of grudges - we can't accept the fact that we've been wronged. Oh, we know we've been wronged. We talk about it endlessly. We obsess over it endlessly. We won't let it go - we're like a dog with a bone. Obsessing about something is not the same thing as accepting it. Acceptance means coming to peace about something - and people at peace do not obsess over or rehearse the wrongs done to them.

This is the heart of the matter - whether we've been betrayed by a parent, a lover, a partner, or a friend - the first step to unlocking the door on our prison of grudges is to accept that the offense has happened. No amount of crying, bargaining, hissy fits, or obsessing over the offense will undo it. The offense has been committed. They cannot take it back and we cannot give it back.

This works the same way when we are the one who has committed the offense. Perhaps we feel guilty that we've done someone wrong. Perhaps we wish it hadn't happened, and we can't seem to get it out of our thoughts. Perhaps we feel guilty. Perhaps we wish we could take it back. But, we can't. It happened. Since we can't unring the bell - the only thing left for us to do is accept it - to embrace the reality that the offense is real and can't be ignored or fixed.

This is the heart of the matter, Jubilants. We've been wronged, and we've wronged others. When we accept these facts - we can hear the door of our prisons begin to creak open, because acceptance means we can finally get to the heart of the matter. I think it's about forgiveness.

Ah these times are so uncertain
There's a yearning undefined
People filled with rage
We all need a little tenderness
How can love survive
In such a graceless age
Oh the trust and self-assurance That lead to happiness
They're the very things we kill I guess
Oh pride and competition
Cannot fill these empty arms
And the work I put between us
You know it doesn't keep me warm

Pre-Chorus: I'm learning to live without you now
But I miss you baby
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew
I'm learning again

Chorus: I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about
Forgiveness, Forgiveness
Even if, Even if you don't
love me anymore

Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Happy are those to whom the Lord imputes no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.

This desert dwelling psalm writer knew a thing or two about the prison of grudges - and the healing balm of forgiveness. When we live in grudge prison we begin to waste away - when we hold our grudge in silence, rehearsing the wrongs done to us, we groan all day long. It feels as though there is a heavy hand on us - pressing down on us - drying up our strength like the summer heat.

Modern day scientists have affirmed what this wise songwriter already knew - holding grudges can be unhealthy. Researchers at Hope College in Holland, Michigan conducted a study back in 2000. About 70 undergrads were told to think about situations where they had either forgiven someone or nursed a grudge. They found that holding a grudge had adverse affects on heart rate and blood pressure. In fact, continuing to hold that grudge can lead to agitation and hostility that lingers even after we stop thinking about the offensive event.

One researcher concluded that those who can't get to the heart of the matter and forgive set themselves up for depression and cardiovascular diseases. "It may be that forgiveness holds its own type of healing," the researcher said.

That's similar to the conclusion the psalmist reaches when he sings:

Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity; I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord', and you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Whether we're confessing our own wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness, or whether we're confessing that we've been holding a grudge and refusing to forgive someone who done us wrong - it's all the same - silence brings suffering and confession brings forgiveness, and with it, freedom from the prison of grudges.

Bridge: There are people in your life
Who've come and gone They let you down
You know they hurt your pride
You better put it all behind you babe
'Cuz life goes on
You keep carrying that anger
It'll eat you up inside baby

Chorus: I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about
Forgiveness, Forgiveness
Even if, Even if you don't
love me anymore

Chorus: I've been trying to get down
To the heart of the matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it's about
Forgiveness, Forgiveness
Even if, Even if you don't
love me anymore

There are three little words we must embrace and live into if we are ever to bust out of this prison of grudges. These three little words are often the hardest to say - and the hardest to mean - when someone has betrayed us.

What are those three little words? "Let it go."

In the words of the poet e.e. cummings:

let it go - the
smashed word broken
open vow or
the oath cracked length
wise - let it go it
was sworn to
go
let them go - the
truthful liars and
the false fair friends
and the boths and
neithers - you must let them go they
were born
to go
let all go - the
big small middling
tall bigger really
the biggest and all
things - let all go
dear - so comes love

Breathe deeply.

Our second song is by country singer Tim McGraw. This was the title track of McGraw's 11th album released in 2007. The song, "Let it Go," went to #2 on the Billboard Country charts. It goes like this:

I've been caught sideways out here on the crossroads
Trying to buy back the pieces I lost of my soul
It's hard when the devil won't get off your back
It's like carrying around the past in a hundred pound sack

[Chorus 1] Today I'm gonna keep on walking
I'm gonna hold my head up high
I'm gonna leave it all behind
Today I'm gonna stand out in the rain
Let it wash it all away Yeah wash it all away
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah

In our Jesus story, we find our guy uttering some beautiful words about forgiveness, that we have no interest in really hearing. Here, Jesus is telling us we need to do things like love people who hate us, and do good to them. If somebody hits us, Jesus says we've got to let them hit us again. No words are offered giving us permission to knock the snot out of them. No, Jesus just continues on this goody-two shoes path telling us that if somebody takes something from us - we need to give them even more of our things. But wait, he's not done. In addition, we've got to lend to people and things and expect nothing in return. But wait, there's even more weird stuff we're supposed to do. We can't judge other people or condemn other people - and if we expect to be forgiven, then we'd better be about the business of forgiving.

What kind of Palestinian crack was this guy smoking? Apparently, Jesus doesn't know much about the real world. I mean, if we just go around loving hateful people, giving all our stuff to robbers, letting people beat the crap out of us and then not be able to judge them for sorry sots they really are, then we are in for a world of hurt. People will be using us as doormats all day long.

All those reactions sound pretty human to me. Somebody hits us, we hit back. Somebody takes stuff from us and we call the cops and try to get it back and toss the burglar in jail. We lend stuff to others and we expect to get it back, with interest. We believe we have every right to judge someone when they do wrong and condemn them in the strongest terms for it.

But, Jesus says no - that's not how we're supposed to live in this world. Jesus fully understands that the world is not a fair place - that people will abuse you, people will steal from you, people will cheat you and lie to you and take from you without ever giving back. Jesus knows people will judge and condemn you - and you'll want to do the same to them.

But, Jesus also knows that this cycle of holding grudges won't end until someone decides to stop playing the game. That doesn't mean you're a doormat - that means you're living into your divinity in such a way that you become the doorway to compassion - the instrument of forgiveness - that heals relationships and brings reconciliation into this world.

We, Jubilants, as followers of this Christ fellow, are the ones called to break that cycle of judging and condemning, that cycle of violence, that cycle of stealing - we are the ones called to forgive. In that act of forgiveness we break down the doors of the prison of grudges - freeing not just ourselves - but all those other inmates who have done us wrong.

Emmet Fox was a scientist and spiritual teacher and he reminds us that whenever we hold onto grudges against anyone, we bind ourselves to them. "You are tied by a cosmic tie to the thing you hate. The one person perhaps in the whole world whom you most dislike is the very one to whom you are attaching yourself by a hook that is stronger than steel. [...] You must loose him and let him go. By forgiveness you set yourself free; you save your soul. And because the law of love works alike for one and all, you help to save his soul too, making it just so much easier for him to become what he ought to be."

In other words, Jubilants: "Let it go." That's why these are powerful words! Often, we cannot bring ourselves to say "I love you" to those who have done us wrong, but we can say, "Let it go."

When we "let it go" - when we are willing to forgive - and willing to be forgiven - then we are free birds - sprung forever from the prison of grudges.

Breathe deeply.

Skeletons and Ghosts are hiding in the shadows
Threatening me with all the things that they know
Choices and mistakes, they all know my name
But I'm through holding in and holding onto all that pain

[Chorus 2] Today I'm gonna keep on walking
I'm gonna hold my head up high
Got no more tears to cry
Today I'm gonna stand out in the rain
Let it wash it all away Yeah wash it all away
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah

Forgiving doesn't mean forgetting though. We cannot ever fully erase the offense that has been done to us, or those offenses we commit against others. We can never begin with a clean slate. Instead, we have to start from a new place - a place of healing and reconciliation.

On that rainy day in July, I stood at the foot of my father's grave. The torment of living in the prison of grudges had taken its toll on me physically, mentally, and spiritually. I could not spend another minute in that hell of a prison.

Sadly, the revelation that forgiveness was the only key that could unlock that prison came too late for me to share it with my father while he was still alive. So, I made the journey to his grave one summer to finally forgive him.

I had been working up to forgiveness by talking with therapists, praying, and reading up on the benefits of forgiveness. I thought I was all ready to do it - to stand before his grave and say the words, "I forgive you. I let it go." The only problem was, when I got there, I realized that wasn't the case at all. I realized that I was still angry - angry that he had left, angry that he had betrayed me and my mother, angry that he had revealed himself to be such a hypocrite and a liar, and angry that he had shattered not only my trust in pastors, but my trust in God.

I told him all about, standing there in the rain. I know I probably looked like a crazy person, ranting at a grave - but it was what I needed to do before I could let it go and leave the prison of grudges behind.

Finally, after I had finished venting my anger and pain, I breathed a heavy sigh, and said with all sincerity, "Dad, I forgive you."

And, Jubilants, if I didn't know it before I knew it in that moment that God is a drama queen. Just as the last syllable fell from my lips, the clouds parted, the rain stopped, and sun appeared brightly in the sky. I even think I heard some angels sing.

This is what happens when we finally forgive - the heavens part - relief comes - and we are freed from our prisons.

In 2006, a gunman entered an Amish school in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, and killed five children and injured five more. The shooter, Charles Carl Roberts IV took his own life shortly thereafter. The world was stunned by the brutality of the crime - but they were even more stunned by the reaction of the Amish. They forgave Roberts - and some of them even attended his funeral and helped the man's widow in her time of grief.

Some people were angry with the Amish for forgiving this man so quickly - but the Amish truly believe that to be forgiven they must forgive. They believe so deeply in these words of Jesus that their whole salvation rests on the notion that they must forgive - no matter how grievous the offense. Does that mean they don't suffer from the offense? Certainly not.

Interviews with the families of the children killed even years after reveal that the they are still dealing with their grief. Instead, those Amish of Nickel Mines knew deeply what Emmet Fox talks about - forgiveness is a gift - for both the offender and the offended.

"Forgiveness does not deny that a wrong has taken place," writes Donald Kraybill, Steven Nolt, and David Weaver-Zercher in their book about this tragedy, "but it does give up the right to hurt the wrongdoer in return. Even though Charles Roberts was dead, opportunities to exact vengeance upon his family did not die with his suicide. Rather than pursuing revenge, however, the Amish showed empathy for his kin, even by attending his burial. In other words, the Amish of Nickel Mines chose not to vilify the killer, but to treat him and his family as members of the human community."

This is so hard in our world where revenge is expected. Movies glorify it. Whenever the hero has been wronged we cheer when he gets his violent revenge. We feel justified and relieved when the villain gets his bloody come-uppance. We may even find ourselves dropping the "f-bomb" when the bad guy pays - we should "Eff yeah!" or "Eff you!"

But, Jubilants, that's not the life the Holy calls us to live. Instead - as a pastor in a video that went viral on YouTube a few months back says, "the new f-word in the church is 'forgive.'"

"Now, that being said," the pastor continued, "touch your neighbor and say 'f-you.' And not just your neighbor, but look down your whole row and say 'f-y'all' too! Take your phone out, text all your ex's and say, 'I'm at church, f-you!' Forgive you for lyin' on me and talkin' about me. You know what, jump on your feet, snap your fingers and say 'F everybody in here!'"

F-the world, Jubilants! That is our calling - to forgive because we have been forgiven. Forgive those who have done you wrong - whether they know you've forgiven them or not because forgiveness isn't really for them - but for you - to free you from your prison. Do not be like a horse or a mule, without understanding, as the psalmist warns us. Steadfast love surrounds us - and for that we must give thanks, let it go, and say, "f-you!"

Bridge: I know I know I know I know I've been forgiven
I know I know I know I'm gonna start living

[Chorus 1] Today I'm gonna keep on walking
I'm gonna hold my head up high
I'm gonna leave it all behind
Today I'm gonna stand out in the rain
Let it wash it all away Yeah wash it all away
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah
I'm gonna let it go Oh yeah

Oh, Yeah!

Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

Copyright by the author All Rights Reserved

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Endorsed by such religious leaders as Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Bishop John Shelby Spong and named one of the Best Spiritual Books of 2008, Whosoever founder Candace Chellew-Hodge's first book Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians is making an impact in the lives of LGBT Christians.

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