I Can See Clearly Now
by Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
Sunday, September 16, 2018
First Reading Prayer for Rosh Hashanah by Marcia Falk
Second Reading This is just to say by William Carlos Williams
I love my cute little blue car. It’s so cute, and so little and so blue. I like driving it, I like looking down on it from my apartment window, parked in its corner spot, all ready to take me places. It’s a good car.
So, when my neighbor, who parks in the spot next to mine, asked me to please be sure to park as far away from her car and into the corner as possible I was a little surprised. I won’t say offended. But I was a little offended.
What’s wrong with my cute little blue car?! Why would she want me to park so far away? Does she not want my car fraternizing with hers? Is it not good enough? Too blue? Too small? What??
I had no idea. But I wondered. I wondered whether maybe she’s one of those fastidious autophiles who carry a shammy cloth with them wherever they go, buffing up at every opportunity, always carefully folding their rearview mirrors into the car when they go places so they don’t get scratched, insisting that no one ever get near their car for fear something terrible might happen to it.
Realizing that wasn’t a very generous thought – I wondered instead — whether it was a “thing” — an inexplicable childhood event that happened and left her with some kind of unfortunate parking claustrophobia – needing a good 4 or 5 feet between her car and any other. Not her fault, just how she is.
Overall though I was puzzled.
But I obliged. Only a little grudgingly. Just a little bit of a pain to park all the way in the corner, harder to back the car out of the lot when it’s over that far. But do I remember, notably, that I’d been practicing patience that year so I was taking it in stride. I was being magnanimous, and that, at least, felt good.
One day as I was getting out of my car that I had effortfully parked as far away from hers as possible, I noticed something out of the corner of my eye. A rust spot on her car. Or, it looked like a rust spot. But maybe it wasn’t a rust spot. It was unusual because, it was in the middle of her driver side door and when I stopped to look I could see there were 2 of them. No wait, more than that, probably 4 or 5 of them in a neat little horizontal row all the way across the passenger door and then body of her car.
Intrigued I moved closer. It wasn’t rust. They were, strangely, all blue. I glanced back at my beloved little car in the corner, my cute little blue car, and realized the dots were just about the height of my driver side door which was now well outside of striking range of her truck.
I don’t know if you have ever found yourself in a situation where you discover that not only were you wrong about someone but in fact you were actually the “causer” of wrong. You are the problem. Such a bummer. Especially when you thought you were being all magnanimous and patient and then you discover that, at least from their perspective, you were thoughtless at best, and, at worst, kind of a jerk.
I’d like to say that as soon as I realized what had happened I immediately approached my neighbor, apologized for what had clearly been some assertive door opening and asked what I could do to set things right. But I was busy, too busy, no time, not today – tomorrow I’ll talk to her. And tomorrow turned into the day after tomorrow, and I didn’t have time then either so it would be the tomorrow after tomorrow. That cycle repeating until – right about the next High Holy day season when I finally realized, hey, I actually need to do something about this. Now.
Sometimes we need a little nudge to turn tomorrow into today.
And, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kipper are Judaism’s most sacred nudge. We are in the midst of the time of the Jewish New Year when Jews all over the world close the book on the past, open a new one to the future and take some time for serious reflection in between.
These are days when Jewish people from all walks of life take time to shine a spotlight on actions and behaviors from the past 12 months and ask themselves hey, is this worthy of me? Is this worthy of who I want to be?
And if the answer is no, if there is something that stands out as unkind, ungenerous, unthoughtful or needing some sort of apology, this is the time, to take the time, to resolve it. To clean house, so to speak. Set things right. Make amends.
One thing I love about this holiday is that in it, in the tradition I’m familiar with, God is gentle and God is loving and God will forgive you. Well, first you have to admit you messed up, but when you do, God forgives you. As soon as you have the aha moment in which you recognize your part in a situation, God smiles on you, and is pleased and cheers and does God’s little God dance that I imagine God does when we on earth have a moment of insight or enlightenment – when we recognize our need to change our ways for the better.
Now, for those of you who don’t buy into an idea of God, or my particular idea of God because, it’s true, I can’t really know if God has a dance that God dances in these circumstances…. For those of you who are more human centered, maybe think of it this way – when we recognize our sometimes obscured part in creating a problem, something in us sighs in relief. Maybe that’s our own highest self, our own conscience and consciousness that relaxes at that willingness to acknowledge a piece of truth had been obscured. Our own piece. The part we didn’t want to see but now we can and when we take our blinders off, we are less likely to run into all kinds of things. And so, something in us, relaxes, is relieved. We can see more clearly.
But, as the tradition goes, just because God has forgiven you, it doesn’t mean that people have. That’s a whole other thing that needs to be handled. Recognition alone is good, but it’s not enough. God can’t fix things we broke with each other. Just knowing we’ve done something wrong and acknowledging it to ourselves isn’t enough. We have to take some action. We have to set things right.
So, I’m paraphrasing a little (well, a lot), and there’s much more about this Jewish Holiday is beautiful and transformational but that’s the basic jist. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are a powerful set of holidays that have inspired me personally from the time I first learned about them.
Inspired me enough that, as I mentioned, I finally did talk to that neighbor.
Who was incredibly gracious. And forgiving. And told me she’d tried to get the spots out but hadn’t been able to, but said it was okay, these things happen, don’t worry about it. But she did thank me for parking a little further away.
Which all left me determined to do something to make it up to her. After scouring the internet for a youtube video with instructions, and bringing some WD 40, a magic eraser, a little elbow grease, and, yes, a shammy cloth, to bear, the spots came off. My neighbor was pleased. And I was relieved.
A little holiday miracle.
And a humbling experience that left me a little more aware of how unaware I can sometimes be, even as it reminded me what interesting stories my mind will come up with to make sense of what I’m seeing – stories that not infrequently obscure my part in things – and block me, from seeing clearly.
Turns out it’s not atypical, for us humans to see first and more starkly, the part we think others play in situations that we don’t like, that have been disappointing, or involve loss.
Nor is it unusual for us, to weave intricate stories of what we think is going on, that match our preconceived hopeful conclusion that we had nothing to do with it.
But it can become a blessing, it turns out, when we are willing to turn ourselves around, take off the blinders, and look at our part, whatever it might be. It becomes a blessing for us of humility, greater integrity and personal clarity. And when we take action, it can become a blessing for others, too.
Sometimes a far-reaching one.
A story that flitted by in last week’s news caught my attention not only because it connected with today’s topic of turning and taking account, but also because it was a refreshing twist on a regrettably common theme these days of sexual abuse and exploitation. The story was about Robert Wild, Jesuit priest and one of Marquette University’s most celebrated presidents. Wild, who oversaw a Jesuit order for 6 years a little more than 25 years ago, wrote to the board of the college to tell them he felt he’d mishandled cases of sexual abuse that occured during his tenure. But he didn’t stop with an acknowlegement, he also asked for action. He asked that his name be removed from a new University residence hall. Which the board agreed to do. And have now done.
In our current blame-ducking culture where the “I didn’t do it” that-guy’s-at-fault narrative is stunningly pervasive, it is reassuring to me, to hear of even one man simply willing to take the blame. Not only take the blame but actually point out his culpability. To point it out and take the hit for it. It models something for everyone and sends a message to those affected by sexual abuse or exploitation that they’ve been heard, and someone, at least, is sorry enough to show remorse.
It’s never much fun when we’ve made a mistake, whether that’s getting paint on someone’s car, or something much more relational, more painful, and harder to clean up.
But we all do it. We all mess up. In small ways sometimes, in big ways other times.
And we all have the capacity, to turn around, take an open honest look, accept the consequences and allow a misstep to become a blessing.
I like the way Rev Katie Scudera puts it in her sermon on this theme: “In our Unitarian Universalist tradition, we don’t have a single rulebook that can tell us exactly what we should and should not be doing, [our faith] puts the responsibility on us to seek “the rules” in our own experience and conscience. But, we are not entirely without guides: If you’re wondering how an ethical Unitarian Universalist behaves, I encourage you to reflect on our Seven Principles, in which we affirm ethical stances including the inherent worth and dignity of every being and the reality that our lives are all deeply interconnected. […] We also have covenant[s] that guide our actions to be loving, supportive, and in service to one another. Our covenant[s] and the Seven Principles are great places to start. Then, once we’ve identified where we’ve gone astray from our values, we can repent directly to those who have been harmed and [begin to] restore the relationships.”
Beyond the nuts and bolts I want to end with you a story that captures for me the spirit of this time, and its soul-clarifying opportunity.
Rev. Victoria Safford writes about a woman she knows who “carries in her wallet a folded card she found in a book a few years back. She received it first many years before that when her son, who’s now completely grown, was just a little kid. She’d forgotten all about it. In backwards block letters, all wobbly capitals and invented spelling, he wrote, Hi Mama. I’m sorry for what I did. It made me sad.
Beneath and all around these words is a crayon drawing: a big stick figure and a little one side by side, with a yellow round stick-figure sun above them, shining down, and they are holding hands and smiling. She says she can’t remember at all what grave infraction brought forth this confession, but still it makes her cry. She says she keeps it close because to her it represents Tikun Olam, which in Judaism means “to repair or heal the broken world.” She says it reminds her to stay open, in case somebody close by is trying to forgive or be forgiven and she should give them her attention, open the gates of the heart. It reminds her of the words of Rumi, the Persian mystic, words she’s written on the back: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.” That’s where we want to live, in that wild, unclenched, sun-drenched, open place.”
Friends, may we, in this time, be willing to turn, to look, to mend, to heal. May we be open. May we find courage. And as we begin to turn the tide of our own mistakes, may we, too, find a vision of some, sun-drenched, open place, where we can finally see each other clearly, and kindly.