Starting Over Every Day
By Rev. Ellen Quaadgras
Westminster Unitarian Church
September 24, 2017
Reading: by Sara Moores Campbell
There is incredible power in forgiveness. But forgiveness is not rational. One can seldom find a reason to forgive or be forgiven. Forgiveness is often undeserved. It may require a dimension of justice (penance, in traditional terms), but not always, for what it holds sacred is not fairness, but self-respect and community. Forgiveness does not wipe away guilt, but invites reconciliation. And it is as important to be able to forgive as it is to be forgiven.
Reading: Hall of Records by Rev. Theresa Soto
I love that version of the hymn. I remember hearing that if we’re not breaking our vows, we’re not aiming high enough. So, to me, that hymn speaks of aspiration. And the more we commit ourselves to the spiritual path, the more we’re gonna notice all the ways we mess up.
And I once heard someone describe the spiritual path as not so much a climb up a lofty mountain. But a descent into a deep valley. At the top of the mountain we see just the peaks, small, manageable. But as we look down we see the whole of the mountain expanding below us. The more aware I become, the more aware I become of all the flaws I have and I have so many. The more I practice being mindful the more I notice all the times I’m not.
So I am comforted by the idea that even though we’ve broken our vows a thousand times, we are still welcome, whoever we are. We’re not asked to be perfect, we asked to be willing, to begin again.
Theologian Martin Buber calls us Promise-making, promise-breaking, promise-renewing creatures. With the emphasis on the promise-renewing – that’s where the power is.
And that’s a focus of the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. It’s about recognizing where we’ve messed up, clearing the slate with each other, and beginning again, with renewed promises for the coming year.
Which sounds nice, and simple, right? Clearing the slate. I picture a chalkboard wiped clean with a wet cloth. Dishes stacked on a table and whisked away to a nearby kitchen.
But like so many spiritual disciplines, the depth to which we experience transformation, the extent of relief and renewal we experience seems closely connected to the depth we are willing to to apply them in our lives.
And so it is with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. While we are not a Jewish congregation and I am not a rabbi, there is much we can take away from the yearly ritual practiced during these Jewish high holy days by when we apply them in our lives.
In particular there is much we can take away from the days of Awe, the 10 days between RH and YK. Ten days of rigorous self-examination. Ten days of clearing the slate through making amends and forgiving those who have hurt us.
Now if you’re like most people, the words “rigorous self-examination,” “making amends” and “forgiveness” don’t necessarily make you want to come running…
How many of us say – yes, I want to bring to light all the things I feel bad or ashamed about, and then talk about them with people who are probably mad at me, that sounds like fun.
Or, yes, please, I want to be reminded of a bunch of hurtful things people did to me, painful things they said to me, and the terrible ways that made me feel and then just, let it go.
Most of us don’t relish these opportunities.
And yet I offer for your consideration the possibility that this pair of spiritual tools may be two of the most profound relationship healers at humanity’s disposal, as well as healers of ourselves and our connection with God or, with our sense of feeling at home, in the world.
Two of the most profound, and two of the hardest.
I appreciate what writer Anne Lamott has to say on the topic:
“I went around for a long time saying that I am not one of those Christians who is heavily into forgiveness,” she writes, “[instead] I am one of the other kind. But even though [I thought that] was funny, and actually true, it started to be too painful to stay this way. They say we are not punished for the sin but by the sin, and I began to feel punished by my unwillingness to forgive. By the time I decided to become one of the ones who is heavily into forgiveness, it was like trying to become a marathon runner in middle age; everything inside of me either recoiled, as from a hot flame, or laughed a little too hysterically.
I tried to will myself into forgiving various people who had harmed me directly or indirectly over the years—four former Republican presidents, three relatives, two old boyfriends, and one teacher in a pear tree—it was “The Twelve Days of Christmas” meets Taxi Driver. But in the end I could only pretend that I’d [forgiven]. I decided I was starting off with my sights aimed too high. As C.S. Lewis says in [his book] Mere Christianity, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo.”
Lamott makes no bones about the challenges of forgiveness, and there are many. But perhaps we don’t start in the hardest spot, maybe we don’t start with the Gestapo. At the end of last week’s service on covenant, someone mentioned a struggle with our first principle – we covenant to respect the inherent worth and dignity of all people. The struggle had to do with applying that principle, in particular, to a political leader that this person is frustrated with. How to honor a promise to respect all, when we do not?
Maybe we don’t have to start with the hardest of our nemeses. Maybe, we can start closer to home.
In that same article, Anne Lamott goes on describe her strivings to forgive someone who she called an “enemy lite” the parent of a boy in her son’s second grade class. A woman who, as Lamott put it, always wore spandex shorts, simply because she could – she was that toned; a woman who always picked up her son on time, who volunteered to bake for the class whenever baking was needed, whose son was excelling in 2nd grade reading when Lamott’s own son was struggling. To top that off, this woman gave Lamott some of her used firstgrade books – handed over with what was unmistakably, as Lamott described, a patronizing smile. Lamott goes on to list further transgressions from this woman and her own pained reactions to them. She goes on to describe her attempts at forgiveness, her abiding resentment, and her struggles with both. She goes on, finally, after what one assumes has been many months of tortured inner anguish, to have a personal awakening. The veil, she writes, was lifted. In a moment of truth she understood something about the roots of her resentment against this woman – turns out they were a lot less about her spandex, baked goods and used books, and a lot more about Lamott’s own unmet, perhaps even unrealistic, expectations of herself. In that moment of insight, a new ways opens and eventually, she and the woman become friends. Baked goods exchange hands, this time with appreciation. Life, as Lamott describes it, is suddenly good again.
A happy ending.
It’s not always quite that way of course. The path of forgiveness is not always humorous, nor does it always end with baked goods and smiles all around.
There are times forgiveness is not just about letting go of projection. Sometimes, people really hurt us, sometimes gravely. There are times when situations call for a dimension of justice, as Sarah Moores Campbell points out in our first reading and, even when forgiveness is given, it does not simply wipe away guilt.
Forgiveness is not about pretending problematic behavior is okay. It’s separate from setting good boundaries – the fact is, if someone has done something hurtful, or is not able to keep certain promises or live up to certain standards, it makes good sense to set limits, to prevent them from repeating a pattern of behavior that has been hurtful in the past. Enabling, allowing harmful behavior to continue is not good for anyone.
Forgiveness is less about taking or not taking certain actions and more about where we are coming from when we take them. And that, is a journey of the heart. A path to freedom, an opening to others and to life, and for us, when we practice it.
And while forgiving – doing the heart work to let go of our attachment to the hurt someone caused us – while that work is ours to do, and we don’t have to wait for anyone else to recognize their part before we begin to let ours go, it’s a different story when we flip it around. When we’re the one who’s stumbled, who’s stepped on toes, who’s messed up, when we *want* forgiveness there’s more to do. We must begin with acknowledgment of wrongs done. We must begin with apology, we might even need to make amends.
Practicing forgiveness is one piece of the days of awe. Making amends for wrongdoing is another.
And this week, as I was reading up on making amends and apologies and how these work during these high holy days, I was feeling pretty good about the fact that for the most part, I couldn’t think of anything much I needed to atone for.
Which is of course the moment I notice an email pop into my inbox – – We need to talk, it said, short and, well sweet isn’t the first response I had to it. It was more like. Uh oh.
The email’s author wanted to talk right away and we connected that afternoon. Turns out I’d done something. I’d been insensitive, I did something hurtful. And this person was mad. I tried to apologize. The operative word is tried.
I explained how it happened, what my good intention had been, how I regretted that the person experienced what I did as hurtful.
Yeah, I’ve heard that one before, the person responded, dryly,
Not surprisingly, they heard my self-defending apology as a resounding, “sorry, not sorry.”
For my part, this did not feel like a cleaned slate; there was no neatly cleared table, here.
I tried again. I’m really sorry that what I did was hard on you, I didn’t mean for it to be, let me explain blah blah blah blah blah.
My apology continued falling on deaf ears. And I didn’t like it much either. I struggled inside myself – my mind was justifying, rationalizing, defending and refusing to accept wrongdoing on my part.
Finally, something in me said to me. Ellen this person is hurting. You were the one who took the action that has left them feeling that way. It doesn’t matter what you intended. They hurt, you caused it. And when I saw it that way, I felt the hurt. Which I finally said. I’m sorry I hurt you, that hurts me. And then I stopped talking. And something shifted. In the tone of the other person’s voice. A fence had come down inside me, when I stopped trying to explain. And perhaps they picked up on something more genuine and more authentic than what I’d offered before. Something seemed to shift for them. And I realized I felt worse and better all at the same time.
Messy stuff, this human relating. That calls us to humility, defenselessness, willingness, openness to some uncomfortable feelings. Confusion about who’s right and who’s wrong, what’s my part what’s yours, how can I fix it and what if I can’t. What if it’s one of those things you can’t just fix? What if there are no words? Or what if it’s too big?
This particular incident wasn’t that. In fact, I called the person and asked if I could preach about it and the answer was yes. I also received an assurance that they were over it and were no longer plotting my demise. Which was comforting, sort of.
But I will say the incident and further reflection showed me how my previous blissful idea that I didn’t have much to atone for lacked depth. While I do okay on the thoughtfulness front, there are countless ways I know I could do better. And while I don’t generally steal from people or hit them, I am part of larger systems that hurt people, and I often shut that right out of my mind.
But a widened awareness is part of the point of a holiday like this one. Not as an excuse for guilt self-flagellation, but as information we can use to become more deeply whole and able to be of service.
In the month leading up to the high holy days, Jewish people are encouraged to make their personal amends, to right their personal wrongs, and to forgive those who have hurt them. On the day of Yom Kippur itself, the day of atonement, Jewish people have an opportunity to come together set things right not with people but with the universe, with God, with themselves.
But here’s the interesting part, as Lynn Unger, a Jewish UU, describes it in a recent article on this holiday. “The litany of atonement that a Jewish congregation recites on Yom Kippur is a long list of things that we have done, and thus apologize for all together. And it doesn’t matter whether you, personally, have done any particular piece of the long list of errors. The whole community atones as one. You take care of your own business before Yom Kippur arrives, but when it comes to apologizing to God, the community takes responsibility as a whole.
And while it may a bit unfair to apologize for things you haven’t done, there is something about atoning as a community that makes so much sense. “Take racism, for instance,” as Lynn writes, “that is a grave wrong that belongs to a community as a whole. You can’t really blame any given white person for the unearned privileges that their race grants them. No single white person asked to live in a system that gives them unfair advantages in so many different ways. And no single white person can really choose to give those unfair advantages back.
“It takes the community, the whole system, recognizing the long history and continuing practice of injustice in order to make reparations and move toward lasting change.”
And that’s just one example, the environment is another. War, growing income inequality, these are others.
So, today, as we reflect on the power of these practices and, I encourage you, to reflect on who you might need to apologize to. Or who it might be time to forgive. As you contemplate that question, I invite you to participate in our closing Litany, a litany of atonement, that all are invited to say together, a communal apology to self, to each other and to the God of your understanding or simply to the greater community here or globally.
I invite you to rise in body or in spirit. It’s number 1037 in your teal hymnal, I will say the first words, you are invited to sing the response.