For Fixing What Is Broken
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Have you ever broken anything? Surely we can think back to a childhood experience of a lamp or a vase or a window that you broke. It’s almost archetypal in how the scene would play out. You were trying to be helpful or maybe you were just horsing around having fun. Your elbow bumped the vase, or you trip on the lamp cord causing the lamp to crash to the floor, or maybe your aim was off and you threw the ball right through the window. And when your parents discovered it they were sorely disappointed in you. Of course, we all came from different family systems and we each grew up in whatever healthy or unhealthy, functional or dysfunctional home we had. But the archetypal pattern is out there. A child breaks something of some value to the parents and the parents have an opportunity to teach the child about making an apology and making amends.
Learning to work through the mix of emotions surrounding relationships is a lifetime of work. Love, Justice, and Forgiveness are the larger elements that keep our relationships alive and healthy. And forgiveness is perhaps the most complex of the three. Fraught with guilt and shame, the process of seeking forgiveness is not an easy one. It is, however, one of the best things we can do for our children to help them learn to apologize and make amends when they have done something wrong. And of course, modeling is the optimal way to teach our children anything. Have you ever broken anything? No one would ever consider seeking forgiveness to be a good experience to look forward to. Yet, wisdom helps us know that it is worth it to be on the other side of the process.
I have been much impressed by the way all the world’s religions offer a healthful perspective on forgiveness. And I like how some scientific studies have begun paying attention to this as well. The Templeton Foundation funds an ongoing Forgiveness Project. Interestingly, however, I’ve discovered that much of the Templeton Scientific research and other research projects that focus on forgiveness do so from the “how to forgive” side of it. Little is studied along the lines of how to be forgiven, how to seek forgiveness. And so, for that I must continue to turn to the world’s religious traditions and other practical sources for stories and understanding.
Yesterday was Yom Kippur, a holy observance in which forgiveness is a significant element. Technically, this year Friday evening was the beginning of Yom Kippur which is a 24 hour observance from sunset to sunset. Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, is the holiest day of the Jewish year. It comes as the tenth day of the Days of Awe, the first day of which is Rosh Hashanah, the new year. The ten days of the new year are called the Days of Awe because people feel fear as well as reverence during this special time of judgment and forgiveness. Observant Jews spend the days reviewing their year, naming their sins as well as the ways they bless the world, the good things and the bad things they have done, weighing it all, seeking to repent from the bad things and encourage the good things. At the end of the ten days, Yom Kippur is a day for fasting and for the seeking and offering of forgiveness. After the self-reflection and efforts to atone and make amends comes the forgiveness.
As Unitarian Universalists, we can take part in an observance like this. As a semi-observant non-Jew, I have taken part in the fasting some years, the full moral inventory most years, the seeking of forgiveness every year. Have you ever broken anything? Religion, at its best, helps us to come to terms with what is broken in life. On the Jewish calendar there is an opportunity to work through a personal moral inventory every year. The fasting is a bodily reminder to give your attention to the task. Fasting is a spiritual practice common to many religious groups. Fasting is both an outward expression of repentance and even solidarity, as well as an inward process of preparation and realigning. It is a way to set oneself on a path to do God’s work or to follow a disciplined path of love and justice.
The times I have fasted I found the physical hunger to be a regular refocusing exercise. I would be doing the dishes or driving the car, checking e-mail or talking on the phone – and I would notice my hunger. But rather than going to the cupboard or refrigerator, I would silently say a prayer for peace and justice in the world. I would also set time aside to meditate and pray through the hunger for all that is broken in my life and in the world, and I would offer up my hunger as repentance for my part in it all, for my sins and also for the ways I heal others and our world.
Looking at my faults and sins is difficult and I find that on any given day I completely ignore them or excuse them. It’s pretty easy to do that. Have you ever broken anything? Do you think about it all the time? I don’t. But when I fast – which I don’t do very often – I find my body calling my attention and I can use that to turn my thoughts to seeking repentance and forgiveness. There are some in the world who cannot forget their sins and the things they have broken. There are people who do not need to fast to remind themselves of their failings and their own best longing to make a better world. Not because they have too much of what some call Old-fashion Catholic Guilt, but because they have committed a major sin or have broken something of great consequence. Consider the extreme example of a murderer with a conscience.
This weekend I watched a movie about Restorative Justice called “Facing the Demons.” The one hour documentary tells the story of an Australian teen murdered during an armed robbery at a suburban pizza store. Through a series of interviews we meet the four perpetrators and the family of the victim as they lead up to a facilitated encounter orchestrated by a senior police officer. At the end of the movie there is nothing really tangible that has changed – the two perpetrators who agreed to participate went back to prison to complete their jail time. And all the participants walk away with mixed feelings – some saying it was positive or saying they could now move on, and others expressing disappointment and how the hoped-for feeling of closure was not found.
Yet it remains a remarkable demonstration that face-to-face encounters between offenders and their victims or the families of their victims are possible in some cases. Restorative Justice is focused on repairing the harm caused by crime and violence rather than on punishing the criminals. It allows the criminals an opportunity to apologize. It is important to add that such work is outside of the regular criminal justice system, no one was thinking the participants would be released from jail as a result of the conference.
In the movie one of the criminals – Karl – talks about how he had wanted to write to the family of the victim. He wanted to apologize. But he agonized over it and did not write to them because he didn’t feel he had the right to communicate with them, to intrude further on their lives with his need to apologize. When he is finally in the room with his own mother sitting next to him, he looks across to the parents of the murdered boy and takes responsibility. He doesn’t offer excuses or say “I only did this part and not that part.” He doesn’t minimize his role in their son’s death. He shares with them the facts and owns up to the thoughtlessness and depravity of his actions. And he apologized.
Leading up the conference Karl spoke in the interviews about being anxious about the possibilities. We open ourselves up without shield of defense when we offer an apology. The one we apologize to is certainly supposed to accept the apology, but that is not how it always works. The person may be angry, hurt, sad, scared, or even bitter. The other person may be vengeful and happy to see you in a position of vulnerability, standing there with your apology and nothing else. As one Unitarian Universalist author, Dwight Lee Wolter puts it: “To err is human, to forgive is an option.” Offering forgiveness is the spiritually mature thing to do, a deeply religious activity. But it is not something to jump into lightly. My colleague Rev. Tom Owen-Towle (in his book Theology Ablaze, p 264) tells of the time early in his ministry when he invited a grief-stricken parishioner to begin the process of forgiveness concerning the person who had murdered his wife. The man plaintively cried: “Oh, Pastor Tom, not yet, not yet!”
It is a noble theological perspective to call for forgiveness even when the hurt is fresh. Some are certainly capable of doing that, the Amish from Lancaster County, PA who forgave the man how murdered five girls and himself in the West Nickel Mines School a few years back. They forgave almost instantly. But for most people there are complex emotions, raw emotions to work through. To offer forgiveness when you don’t really mean it is not fair or just to anyone.
That is important to accept when you find yourself in the position of needing to apologize to someone. Offering forgiveness is a freeing act and is a step in the direction of reconciliation. But it cannot be forced. It is a choice anyone can make, but it must be real. But here is the great part of all this: Yes it is hard and painful and it makes you vulnerable and the other person may not even accept your apology. But it is worth it. It is freeing. It can change your life.
How do you seek forgiveness? How do you fix what is broken? Through confession and repentance. Admit or confess the fullness of your transgression, apologize for it, and try to make amends.
The starting point is to seriously accept your responsibility in the situation or in the relationship. No ‘politician’s apology’ will do. “Mistakes were made” is not going to cut it. “I’m sorry people were offended by my words” is not enough. “I am sorry I said offensive words” is a good start now. Don’t minimize it with excuses or candy-coat it with rationalizations. Everyone has broken something and can relate to the need to address it. And yes, every scenario is unique and complex and it is rare for fault to lie with only one party – but focus only on your part. Seriously accept your responsibility for the break. The next step is to apologize. Open yourself to the other person’s just anger and hurt. Say “I’m sorry” and give the other person time to consider what they do with that. No need to grovel or turn over your dignity; simply say “I’m sorry” and give the other person time to consider what they do with that. And then offer to make amends; offer to do whatever can be done to make it right.
There a story of a boy who had a hard time controlling his anger. He would often lash out when he was angry. Finally his father told him that every time he lashed out in anger he should go out to the back yard and pound a nail into the fence. During the first few days, the boy was out in the back yard pounding nails several times a day. Over time, the boy went to the fence less often. Then the boy went an entire day with out going out to the fence to pound in a nail. The boy said this to his father who replied, “Now every time you control your anger and do not lash out I want you to go out and remove one of your nails from then fence.” And this the boy did. Sometimes he would still pound a nail in, but more often he removed nails.
Eventually there came a day when the boy had not pounded a new nail into the fence in weeks, and he had removed all the nails from his earlier visits. His father then took him out to the fence and said, “I am proud of you, you have learned to control your anger. I want you to remember, however, that although you have removed the nails you had pounded into the fence, the holes from those nails are still there. You cannot take those away. You can always remove a nail that you have pounded into the fence but you can never remove the hole that you make with the nail. So it is when you lash out with your anger. You can apologize and be forgiven, but the damage you cause will always remain in at least some fashion. It is good to apologize, better to not need to, but you will need to. No one can move through this life without creating a few nail holes.”
What’s done is done, but how we respond is what matters most. This leads me to perhaps the most important part of seeking forgiveness that I have not mentioned yet, although it was part of the litany we did early this morning. What’s done is done. But in order to be free to respond at our best we need to forgive ourselves and begin again. “We forgive ourselves and each other, we begin again in love.”
Don’t beat yourself up for what you have done, don’t dwell in your sins and failings. Own up to them, acknowledge them, apologize for them and make what amends you can, and then move past them. In order to do that, early in the process, you need to forgive yourself. It may feel a little counter intuitive. “How can I forgive myself,” I imagine myself responding. “Isn’t that a bit self-serving? I’m not the victim – I’m the one who hurt someone else. The other person is the one to offer forgiveness.” But consider the offender who does not believe their crime is forgivable. We must be at least willing to admit the possibility of being forgiven for us to even pursue it. Don’t dwell on your sins and failings, forgive yourself and begin again in love.
Like the murderer who longed to offer apology to the family of his victim; like the father who realized his part in the estranged relationship with his son; like the person who remembers taunting others in school, remembers being a bully in grade school and is now a kinder, wiser, more secure person; like the countless other examples of people who have hurt someone or broken something – we can learn to forgive ourselves and each other. And we can begin again in love.
In a world without end,
May it be so.