Over the years, noted child psychologist, Robert Coles, has authored a number of well-known books. But in one of his smaller, more obscure books, Robert Coles tells what may be his most powerful personal story.
A number of years ago, Robert Coles was finishing his medical school studies at Harvard just as the Civil Rights movement began. Soon after he graduated, Coles went down to New Orleans to work with children in that city. And one day he met a young, black girl named Ruby Bridges, who wound up changing his life.
As some of you may recall, on November 14th, 1960, six year old Ruby Bridges was the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the south. In order to get to William Frantz Elementary School, however, Ruby Bridges had to ride a school bus. And starting on day one, all the white kids on Ruby’s bus route stopped riding the bus.
Tension and fear and anger were running high across the south in 1960. And New Orleans was no exception. Nevertheless, every day Ruby Bridges rode the school bus by herself and every day she walked by herself carefully and proudly from the school bus to the front door of her school.
Along the way from the bus to the school building, Ruby was forced to walk through a gauntlet of white parents and local citizens taunting her, insulting her, and threatening her. What was striking to Robert Coles, however, was the way in which Ruby Bridges stopped and talked to herself for a few moments just before she got off the bus each morning.
“What do you say to yourself, Ruby?” Coles asked one day.
“I’m not talking to myself,” was Ruby’s reply.
“What are you doing then?” Coles pressed further.
“I’m praying,” Ruby answered.
“What are the words you are praying?” Coles continued.
“I’m saying the words my mother taught me to say,” Ruby said. “Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who are sinning against me.”
Fifty-five years ago, uttering those familiar words embedded in the Lord’s Prayer were the way in which Ruby Bridges started her school day. And those words gave her the courage and the resolve she needed to blaze the trail of school integration in spite of the daunting obstacles she faced…
You and I don’t have to endure the kind of daily turmoil and strife Ruby Bridges once did. Nevertheless, I believe her words are worth reciting as we start this new 2015 year. “Forgive me my sins as I forgive those who are sinning against me.”
To be sure there are any number of words or mottoes we could adopt at the outset of 2015. In fact, I trust some of us have already made resolutions. I know there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of cars I see in the gym parking lot over the last couple of weeks, for example. We’ll see how much staying power people’s commitment to fitness and exercise has by the time February rolls around.
Still of all the things we could resolve to accomplish over the next twelve months…of all the lifestyle changes we might make…of all the choices we might consider to increase the health of our body, mind, and spirit…I’d put forgiveness right near the top of the list. There are few things we can do that will improve our attitude and our well-being and our sense of inner peace more than asking for forgiveness and granting forgiveness to those around us.
Anger, resentment, plans for revenge. We’ve all had those thoughts from time to time. And we direct them towards the person who cheated us out of what was rightfully ours. The person who lied about us and damaged our reputation. The person who took our job, wrecked our marriage, led our child astray. It’s not fair and we want the one who wronged us to confess and apologize and beg…maybe with a few tears sprinkled in for good measure. We expect the one who made life miserable for us to pay us back by acknowledging their errors in a heartfelt manner and then genuinely asking for forgiveness.
And yet sometimes it doesn’t matter how far the other person goes to try and make amends…you and I still can’t find a way to let them back in our good graces. To be sure, there are some things in life so heinous they are hard to forgive. Moreover, there are a few things in life so evil only God has the power to forgive.
On the other hand, when it comes to life’s smaller offenses, it’s not helpful for any of us to harbor ill will. Eventually, anger and resentment and hatred function like a self-built, self-contained prison for one…a bad place for us to be, a lonely place for us to live, a restless and empty place for us to sleep at night.
Our inability to forgive is like an acid that eats away at the soul. So as we gather here at the outset of 2015, the question is whether you and I are using our spiritual energy to clutch onto some wrong or some meanness done to us? Is there somebody in our lives we need to forgive? Or while we’re asking the question, is there something we need to forgive in ourselves?
If there is something we’re clinging to and we can feel it consuming us from the inside out, let it go. Give it up. Hand it over to God. Yes, that sounds like an easy thing to say. And it’s a harder thing to do. But that’s where faith comes in.
Jesus has already modeled for us how to forgive. He’s already showed us how to do it. And because Jesus Christ loves each one of us more than we can imagine, he’s given to us a key. The kind of key you and I can use to unlock the angry prisons we get stuck in. It’s a key labeled “forgiveness.”
Long ago, Jesus had plenty of reasons to hold onto grudges and slights, both perceived and real. Human beings can be cruel and careless and there are times when we deserve some of the grief that comes our way. But Jesus was different. Full of compassion and love and goodness, the Roman authorities still conspired against him. They arrested him on a trumped up charge, convicted him of something he did not do, nailed him to a gruesome cross and made fun of him while they did it.
Yet Jesus held the key of forgiveness in his hand. When Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane. When he stood before Pilate and listened as people bore false witness against him. When he hung on the cross and looked down at all the ones who had abandoned him and left him for dead, including those who were supposed to be his beloved. What did Jesus do? He forgave them. Every single one of them. “Father forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing.”
If Jesus could forgive the people who wronged him, knowing full well he didn’t have any sins of his own to confess, what excuse do you and I have for not doing the same? If we want to be followers, disciples of Jesus Christ, we resolve to forgive one another the same way he forgave us.
Years later, after the death and resurrection of Jesus, the writer of Colossians took the words of Jesus and expounded on them. “Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.”
But if you can’t remember the words Jesus spoke on the cross. And if you can’t remember today’s words from the Letter to the Colossians. All you have to do is pay close attention the next time you pray the Lord’s Prayer. The same words we pray in worship every Sunday. The same words Ruby Bridges prayed before she got off the school bus. Words we know by heart.
Right in the middle of the Lord’s Prayer, listen to the words. Repeat the words a couple of times if you need to. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” When Jesus taught the prayer he said, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Don’t get bogged down with the wording. Think about the message and the bottom line which doesn’t change. Forgive us our own sins. And forgive those who sin against us.
Forgiveness is a place to begin. It’s a good new year’s resolution and a really good way to start 2015. Forgive yourself for our own good. Forgive someone else for the common good. Forgive in the name of Jesus Christ because you have been forgiven. For God’s good. Amen.