Rev. Scott W. Alexander
Unitarian Universalism has long been criticized -- by more traditional religious traditions -- for its reluctance to deal (theologically, liturgically, spiritually and ethically) with the more negative, painful and evil aspects of human living. This is a criticism we would do well not to dismiss too quickly, for the truth is that historically we have been a rather sunny and optimistic faith tradition, whose spiritual predisposition has been, to focus on the more positive dimensions of human life (just look at those hopeful 7 principles printed in your orders of service this morning...ours is a religion primarily focussed on human possibility!), thereby sometimes failing to fully and forthrightly grapple with the negative and painful side of the equation. While I would never have Unitarian Universalism lose its spiritually positive outlook (I am so proud of the way this tradition affirms the intrinsic worth and beauty of life and persons), I would nonetheless observe that we have (as a faith tradition) been somewhat spiritually hesitant to face human sin and evil (and have therefore not always been able to equip ourselves with the spiritual and emotional tools to deal with human weakness and wrong-doing when we encounter it in our daily living).
This cannot be said, however, of Judaism. Built into the very soul and center of Judaism is a bedrock awareness and unashamed acceptance of the full range of human foible and failing. Maybe this is so in large part because over their long and turbulent history as a people, Jews have had to face so much violence, persecution, oppression and danger (their history has painfully taught them how evil human persons and society can be) - or maybe it's just because Judaism (having survived so many centuries as a faith) has a certain mature, no-nonsense realism about the vagaries of human life - but for whatever reason Judaism is not spiritually squeamish about naming and confronting the full range of human sin and sadness. Built right into to its observance of its highest of holy days (Rosh Hashanah which begins next Saturday, and - more to the point -- Yom Kippur which begins the Sunday after next) is a bold acknowledgement of the reality of human sin...and the universal need which all human beings have to both give and receive forgiveness (which is my real focus this morning). I want to spend the next few minutes reflecting on the Jewish wisdom (expressed by their tradition at this time every year) concerning the necessity to, 1) face (full and unafraid) the prevalence of human failing and, 2) the subsequent need (we all have) for forgiveness. I am certain that we - as Unitarian Universalists - can learn something from tough-minded Judaism which will spiritually and emotionally deepen us as we proceed in our perfectly flawed lives.
First of all, Jewish tradition is absolutely right when it asserts that to be human is to sin. Now please don't get hung up on the traditional theological language here...the original meaning of the word "sin" is simply the human process of "missing the mark. " To "sin, " then, as a human being, is (in your relationships with life and persons) to "miss the mark, " to do something (or to fail to do something...for surely there are sins of omission as well as sins of commission) which hurts or harms others, which violates the principles and values you hold closest to your heart, and diminishes you and those around you. Now you can be as optimistic and positive about the inherent worth and dignity of persons as you want to be (that affirmation is the first principle of our UU faith) but surely no one in this room thinks themselves (or anyone else, no matter how exceptional or good) capable of leading a life free of wrong-doing, betrayal, hurt, and failure (in relation to people and groups around us). Only a sociopath - only someone dangerously and narcissistically focussed on his or her own internal delusions - could imagine him or herself free of failure or hurt in their relational lives. Without being too confessional here (for this sermon isn't about me, its about US) I as a religious person am routinely reminded (by the gyrations of both internal and external moral compasses) of the many ways (both big and small) that I "miss the mark, " that I fail to live fully by my highest principles, fail to fully keep my promises and obligations (especially with those closest to me whom I love), and live out of destructive selfishness rather than compassionate communalism - to name just a few of the ways sin manifests itself in my life. Now there is nothing very original about my sins or yours, most of us "miss the mark" in rather ordinary ways, but that ordinariness (and the fact that all human beings participate in such relational failings) does not lessen the pain, dislocation, hurt and sorrow they cause ourselves and others.
But Judaism - which like our own religious tradition is optimistic and hopeful about human persons and the potential of human society - has, built right into it, a practical spiritual mechanism to deal (honestly and creatively) with sin - forgiveness. Yom Kippur is a yearly observance which requires faithful Jews (in a disciplined, honest, annual way) to take stock of their lives, behaviors and relationships, and then to act- spiritually, practically...in relationship - to improve themselves by both asking for (and giving) forgiveness. I want to suggest to you that -- spiritually speaking -- both sides of the forgiveness equation -- both ASKING for forgiveness (from those you have wronged)...and GIVING forgiveness (to those whom you believe have wronged you) - are of EQUAL LIBERATING IMPORTANCE to us as flawed human beings seeking to live in right and responsible relation in the world.
Let's take each side of the forgiveness equation (asking and giving) in turn, shall we, and see how each functions to liberate and enliven us on our individual journeys toward wholeness, joy, and decency in living. First, the process of genuinely GIVING forgiveness to those whom you believe have wronged you.
My colleague Patrick O'Neill (of our Wilmington, Delaware congregation) tells of an experience he had as a child. It seems that while walking home alone from school one winter day, he was set upon and beaten up by some older bullies and left lying in the snow. A neighbor woman, with a heavy foreign accent, took him into her home and gave young Patrick some hot cocoa. Seeing the rage in his eyes, she gently said to him, "You are angry at those boys. It is natural for you to feel that way, given what happened, but now - let it go. This day has other things for you.
He later learned that the woman and her husband were both survivors of a concentration camp during World War II, when he happened noticed a tattoo on the woman's forearm. It was, of course, her identification number from the prison camp. And when Patrick innocently asked about the tattoo, the woman gently replied that the number represented her past</Inot her present and it was not going to be her future. She has moved beyond her victimhood (just as she had moved past her anger and suffering). Writing recently about the experience, Patrick wrote this:
"Imagine hearing that from a death camp survivor. Besides the hurts and indignities of an unfair universe, this day has other things to give you. Besides the anger and the hurts that you want to carry in your heart, this day has other things to give you. If you're not too invested in your identity as a victim, this day has other things to give you. I heard that from someone who knew a thing or two about pain and anger and being a victim. "
I think that this simple story holds within it the great spiritual and emotional truth of why (first for our own psychological and spiritual health...and secondly for the psychological and spiritual health of our most valued relationships) we must learn how to forgive those who have hurt or wronged us. The old Jewish woman who had survived the holocaust had it right. Of course she could never FORGET what happened to her (as Auschwitz survivor and conscience of the world Ellie Weisel reminds us we must never forget evil and wrong-doing) but as a survivor she was both free to (and wise enough) to MOVE ON IN FORGIVENESS, freeing herself up to find what blessings and satisfactions life had yet to give her.
When we nurse our resentments and recriminations -- when we refuse to move past the anger and hurt we feel when we feel we are treated unjustly, unkindly or unfairly - those negative emotions take up crucial, creative space and energy within us, and block us and blind us - literally block us and blind us, almost like an enveloping cloud of internal poison - from noticing all the other, life-generating things "this day holds for us." If young Patrick had spent the rest of that winter day nursing his anger at those bullies who beat him up and left him in the snow, he would have missed the delicious warmth of the cocoa and kindness offered him by the old woman. He might have been so distracted by his rage that he would not have been able to later settle into a good book, enjoy his favorite television show or delight a game of checkers with his best friend. By stewing in the unfairness of how he was treated, he might have missed altogether the beauty of the hot orange sunset against the delicate tracery of bare, winter trees, or been unable to fall into the gentle embrace of sleep beneath his grandmother's soft comforter. Surely it is true. The unforgiving heart - the soul filled with anger and recrimination...the heart unwilling to MOVE ON from injustice and hurt -- is (in the end) incapable of being fully, finely, and joyfully human. By nursing such negative emotions, we use up most of the emotional and spiritual energy and space we have at our disposal for positively and purposefully engaging this remarkable world. We forgive, them, first and foremost for our own psychological and spiritual health. As one of my colleague writes, "Forgiveness is an act of [self] liberation, freeing us from the bondage of crippling enmity. It reminds us that the more our hearts are filled with anger and hatred and thoughts of revenge, the less room we have in them for joy and love and all that is life-fulfilling. "
Does this resonate with your experience? Have you ever noticed how your own inability to forgive someone or something (and move on in your emotional life) has blocked you from living fully and joyfully (draining your days of their color and gladness)? Have you ever known someone else who has literally poisoned their life by their inability to forgive and move on? Let me tell you about a woman, long dead now bless her heart, whom I shall call Sylvia. She was a member of the UU congregation I served in New Jersey back in the 80's, and was a person who (in my spiritual estimation) became a very sad and toxic person by her absolute unwillingness (or was it simply an inability?) to let go of her old hurts and wounds. True, she had had her share of hard knocks in life, but the enduring sadness of her life arose not (in my estimation) from her bad luck (we all have some of that), but from her failure to find a spiritual way to let go of her anger and move on. She could not forgive her long-departed husband for "dying on me, " she could not forgive her children for what she perceived to be their neglect and ingratitude, she could not forgive neighbors, co-workers, even fellow church members for any imagined slight, insult or inconsiderateness, she could not forgive life itself for bringing so much hardship into her years. Almost everything bad or hurtful that happened to Sylvia became enshrined in her heart as a proud, permanent talisman of martyrdom - and as a result her whole life (most of her psychic and spiritual resources) were used up by her churnings in these negative, dead-end realms. A wise Chinese proverb says, "Whosoever pursues revenge should dig two graves, " and 19 Century French writer Baudelaire said, "Hatred is a most deadly poison - because it is made of our blood, our health, our sleep and two-thirds of our love. " I was never able, as Sylvia's minister, to help her find the spiritual key to unlock her own resources for forgiveness, to help her move on and see that (despite the very real hardships and hurts of her life) that "this day - every day -- holds other things for you."
Now I realize that this business of finding and giving forgiveness for those who wrong us is often a lot easier said than done. More than a decade ago, I felt deeply betrayed by two colleagues and friends who (at a particularly vulnerable juncture in my life) in my estimation failed to stand with me and support me in the ways I thought they should. After the initial hurt and anger wore off, I said to myself, "Well, I'll just forgive them in my little Unitarian Universalist heart and move on," but no such cheap grace (no such effortless forgiveness) was possible. I soon discovered that whenever I saw them or thought of them, I felt myself welling up with resentment and hurt. I couldn't just slap my own easy forgiveness on top of the wound. Finally, with the closer of these two friends, I began what I would call THE TRUE, HARD WORK OF FORGIVENESS. I sought him out, and he and I forthrightly talked about the situation and my feelings of betrayal. He told me in turn how he felt and why he had acted the way he had...and then did sincerely offer regrets for some of his actions. I similarly (after I truly listened to his own self-justification and perspective) could see how I hadn't acted in an absolutely sterling fashion through the whole episode, and offered my own regrets and apologies. We promised each other to work - in the future -- at being better friends. Thus began a healing journey of forgiveness (each of us offering it, each of us receiving it) that has allowed us to remain friends.
Now I will admit that our friendship has never quite returned to its previous warmth, depth and intensity -- nor do I expect it to. Trust was damaged by hurt, and the friendship will probably always remain somewhat muted and cautious - but we have been able (through the spiritual and emotional work of forgiveness we did with one another) to salvage most of what remains a healthy and nurturing relationship...and that is perhaps enough. With the other friend (whom I no longer see due to the fact that he has left our ministry) I have chosen not to initiate the face-to-face work of forgiveness. Even so, just by my own internal spiritual work (of realizing my anger toward him serves no purpose in my life other than that of robbing me of positive spiritual energy), I have been able to substantially forgive him, move on from my enmity, stop saying nasty things about him with others who know him (as I once did out of my anger), and truly value and respect him for his many remarkable contributions to our world (for he truly is a great man doing wonderful social justice work in our world). And thus I arrive at what I think is an important point concerning forgiveness. Forgiveness (in my experience) is not some categorical all or nothing proposition like being pregnant or winning the lottery. Forgiveness is a journey and a process of the human heart and relationship that often happens partially...slowly...incrementally. While I suppose it is possible for some people to have pure, sweeping, instant-and-absolute moments of total forgiveness for those who have wounded or wronged them, I do not usually experience it that way. Forgiveness is usually a process of slowly, tentatively rebuilding a relationship, slowly rebuilding the trust, care and affection we seek so desperately to have with others.
And thus I arrive at the (all important) OTHER half of the forgiveness equation. In exploring the FIRST half of the "forgiveness equation" I have affirmed that we must learn to GIVE liberating forgiveness when we feel we have been wronged because "this day holds other things" for us...and similarly (on the OTHER END) we must also learn to ASK for the forgiveness of others because it seems spiritually obvious that we human beings are not meant (in this life) to live with broken, partial, unfulfilling, angry and unsatisfying relationships - we are not meant to live asundered and apart from others. When we are aware that we have hurt, betrayed or otherwise wounded some other person (and those persons are often those closest to us - our immediate circle of beloved family and friends) we need to swallow our pride, say we are sorry, and begin the hard work of forgiveness I have already somewhat described. Now the rub here, of course, is that the work of forgiveness is often long and arduous. Simply saying "I'm sorry" is (almost always) not enough. As Ginger Luke wisely put it in our most recent RRUC newsletter,
The high Holy Days [of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur] remind us that it isn't enough to say, 'I'm sorry.' We must make right what we have made wrong. Take time to think about how you might have hurt someone's feelings or not kept a promise. Being human we all make mistakes. And being human, we can make right many of those mistakes.
Something hopeful which both Judaism and Unitarian Universalism believe is that after we "sin" in relationship (after we "miss the mark" by hurting or failing another) we are not doomed to live with that damaged/dysfunctional relationship that has been torn asunder. We are (each of us) free (if we are spiritual grown-ups who know who we are and what we truly want in life) to face our failings, say we are sorry, do the hard work of contrition, and grow (steadily...purposefully) in the ways of the spirit that will help us not repeat our hurtful or unkind behavior.
One learns this most, I believe, in one's primary love relationship. I know of no long term love partnership that is not sustained (and strengthened) by forgiveness, regularly sought and given. I don't think I'm not confessing too much when I say that (more frequently than I would like to admit) I fail (by various acts of commission and omission, both little and big) to offer to Collins (my spouse) the kind of reliable support, nurturance, reciprocity, fairness and care all spouses deserve. I feel a little better about this ministerial confession knowing that each one of you (if you are in a primary love relationship) also (every now and again) similarly fall victim to being human, "missing the mark" with your beloved (or your children or your grandchildren or your parents or brothers and sisters - take your pick of familial relationships that can get hurtful). Hey, I'm not talking out of school here...I don't know any long term, intimate couple (no matter how clever, happy or exceptional) that does not participate in the failings of human sin and therefore need to rely on the process of forgiveness to sustain their intimacy and caring.
And so it is in EVERY sphere of our living - at home on the highways and at work...with family and friends...neighbors and strangers alike - wherever and whenever we have human relationships...YOM KIPPUR HAS IT RIGHT. We human beings -- being as perfectly flawed as we are -- need forgiveness - both given and received, with a holy regularity, if we are to realize our great human potential to be in proper, nurturing relationship with others. LISTEN TO ME. I take it on faith that we were NOT placed on this earth (in the midst of this great and beautiful mystery) to live in shattered relationships marked by dislocation, disappointment, resentment and pain. I take it on faith that we were made (wired from the primordial soup of our human being) for right relation, depth relation, caring relation with other life around us. We human beings have within us the primordial potential to live with each other with abundant wholeness, health and harmony. Yes we "sin," but (as free-willed and capable creatures) we (by our soul work and by hour honesty and sincerity to look at our personal failings) can create the pathways for forgiveness and reconciliation, which will lead us back to the kind of connection and caring with one another we were intended for.
Yom Kippur is true...Your day holds other things for you...through the work of forgiveness you can let go of your old enmity and debilitating anger and liberate yourself to once again see the dance of life's blessings around you.
Yom Kippur is true...Your marriage holds other things for you...through the work of forgiveness you can rebuild and re-energize your committed love partnership, discovering once again the depths of support and caring that fills a home (and marriage) with satisfaction.
Yom Kippur is true...Your family holds other things for you...through the work of forgiveness you can find reconciliation with that parent...that brother or sister...that child or cousin from whom you have been so long estranged and silent...all you have to do is start, and say "what will it take to make our relationship right?"
Yom Kippur is true, my dear Unitarian Universalist friends, you were not meant to sit with broken and unsatisfying relationships, forgiveness works, forgiveness liberates, forgiveness allows you to know (from the heart out) that this day holds other things for you...this day blessedly holds other things for you.
Blessed be. Amen.