Living Columns & Blogs

Use High Holy Days to ask for forgiveness, let go of grudges

As a Unitarian Universalist minister, I write Sunday sermons on a variety of topics. I do not follow the lectionary as many of my Christian colleagues do. This is not always easy, because I have to come up with the original idea, do all the background research and put it together into something that’s interesting, educational and challenging at the same time. The big plus is that I get to draw from the wisdom of all the world’s religions, as well as from the wisdom of the world’s great thinkers and philosophers.

So I am using the opportunity of the Jewish High Holy Days to talk to my congregation about issues of atonement and forgiveness. It is interesting to see how the tradition of Yom Kippur started: It was because Moses got mad and broke the tablets that the Ten Commandments were written on. Then, of course, he had to shlep back up Mount Sinai and ask God for another copy. But what on Earth made Moses so mad?

It’s obvious — just look at the story in Exodus 31:19-20: Moses had been minding his own business, tending to his sheep, and suddenly there was a burning bush and Moses went to investigate. After listening to a long sermon by God, and trying to get out of the job that God had in mind for him, he was given the tablets. While he was going through all this anxiety and stress, the Israelites — whom he had left behind — decided to throw a party. Not only did they have a party, they also had a golden calf that they worshipped as the god who had brought them out of Israel. Of course Moses had a fit — wouldn’t you have been mad, too?

However, as mature adults you also know that throwing a fit and breaking things rarely solves anything. But God understood, gave Moses another set of tablets and forgave the people of Israel. However, there was one condition: They had to repent once every year. And so they do.

I love this wisdom of the Hebrew Bible, wisdom that makes you look inside yourself at regular intervals to see where you might have done the wrong thing, might have hurt somebody. And then to go and ask that person for forgiveness.

Actually, there now is scientific evidence that holding a grudge, or not forgiving, or not being forgiven, is bad for our health. In particular, cardiovascular disease of all kinds is found more often in people who have anger or hostility, who blame others for their lot in life. There are many studies that found that people of all ages and in all walks of life who learn to forgive generally report improved health all around. They have fewer dizzy spells, upset stomachs and racing hearts.

Turns out that the famous “type A” personality has health issues not so much from their busywork personality, but from the tendency to hold on to hostility toward people in their lives.

One more thought I will incorporate in my sermon for next Sunday: Forgiving someone means understanding that you did not get what you wanted. This makes it crystal clear that forgiveness is not about the other person, it is about us.

I would challenge you to ask yourself, “What grudges do I hold? Whom do I need to forgive? Do I have a grievance story? Is it time to let it go? Is it time to understand that I did not get what I wanted?”

The wisdom of forgiveness is not only in the Hebrew Bible. In an exchange with Jesus in Matthew 19, Peter says: “How often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus replies, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.”

I encourage you to use the High Holy Days as a reminder to do just that — to ask those for forgiveness whom you have hurt; and to let go of grudges against folks who might have hurt you.

The Rev. Gabriele Parks is the transition minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Centre County in State College.

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