Last Saturday I went back to my old school in Edmonton, for a school reunion. Come September it will be 55 years since, as nervous 11-year-olds, my classmates and I started ‘big school’ and found ourselves no longer the oldest juniors, but the very smallest and weediest seniors in the world of school. Anyone who has ever attended one of these occasions will recognise immediately what it was like. You go into the room that’s been allocated to your year group, and it’s full of all these old people, their faces crossed with wrinkles, their hair grey or gone. And they’re all saying to you and each other, “Well, I’m sorry, I don’t remember you at all…”, or “Yes, I remember your name, but I would never have recognised you…” And little by little you start to recognise and remember, and to revisit those years you spent together as teenagers, and possibly even friends.
One of the great things about this return was that I was reminded of something wonderful that happened when I first attended one of these reunions, five years ago. On that day I met a woman I shall call Jill (because that’s her name), whom I had not seen since we left school aged 18. And I said sorry to her for something I did over 40 years before.
What happened was this. When I was in the Sixth Form I was one of a small group of students chosen to edit the Sixth Form magazine. At the time I had ambitions to be a poet, and in my mind the magazine was going to be chiefly a vehicle for my genius, in which I could publish the best of my own verses. Unfortunately we were also expected to solicit contributions from other budding writers and poets; and Jill submitted a couple of her own poems. My fellow-editors and I turned down one of these and made her rewrite another before we would publish it. Not because they needed it in any way. Just because we could. We used our ‘power’ as editors to put down another student, and make ourselves feel important.
And for over 40 years, whenever I looked at that blotty, roneoed old student production (which for some reason I had kept) I thought of Jill and felt guilty about what I had done to her. So when I met her again in July 2010, I told her how bad I felt about that arbitrary abuse of power, and said, “I’m sorry.”
Jill – bless her – didn’t say, “You know what? I don’t even remember that.” She said something much better. She said, “That’s OK; I’ve got over it; I forgive you.” I could hardly believe how good that made me feel: it was as if a weight had been lifted from me; I had been set free from some burden; and in fact I have stayed free, I haven’t felt guilty about it since that day.
Now, you might think this was a fairly trivial wrongdoing, in the great scheme of things. But for me that makes it all the more instructive to see how guilt can weigh on a person for a lifetime, and yet be lifted, completely removed, by a forgiving word. As Christians we take this for granted, rather. Every week when we come to church, we say Sorry to God for all that is wrong in our lives, and the priest tells us that God forgives us. By rights we should feel even lighter, freer about this, than I did about Jill’s word of forgiveness, because the ways we have hurt God are so much greater. How much greater, then, is the healing and freedom that his forgiveness brings, seeing it was gained by Jesus’ death on the cross?
Jill, as it happens, is a Christian, and I’m pretty sure she knows very well what she was doing when she said what she did. Being forgiven is one of the most wonderful things in life; and forgiving is wonderful too, because when we do it we are being like God, and doing what God does. Jesus certainly knew what he was doing when he taught his followers to pray, Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.