Say It Like You Mean It
Rev Douglas Taylor
September 24, 2017

“Now is the time for turning” Jack Riemer says in our responsive reading from the hymnal (#634, Jack Riemer.) He offers images from nature to begin the point. “For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.” The reading is a Yom Kippur invitation into forgiveness, but it begins by showing how the natural world turns simply because that is part of what it means to be the natural world. The reading goes on, “But for us turning does not come easily. It takes an act of will for us to make a turn… It means saying: I am sorry. It means recognizing that we have the ability to change. These things are hard to do. But unless we do turn, we will be trapped forever in yesterday’s ways.”

A predominant theme in the Yom Kippur season is that of turning. Turning from insensitivity and indifference, turning from pettiness and aggression. Turning and returning to that which is holy, that which is good. Turning back to our best selves. “Now is the time for turning.”

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. Yom Kippur is a day of fasting, of self-reflection, and of seeking and offering forgiveness. It will take place this year on Friday the 29th, so you have a few more days yet to set yourself right.

Seeking forgiveness is not easy. It is remarkable to have an annual opportunity to engage with the experience. Over the years I have taken the opportunity to preach about forgiveness and to do my own work on that theme as well. In recent years, I have approached this season from the perspective of restoring relationships, of letting go of a grudge, of offer forgiveness. Today, I focus on the other side of the equation, on seeking forgiveness.

In our reading this morning ( ) the author makes the point that children are often taught a very simplified and unhelpful formula for how to apologize and seek forgiveness. “Say you are sorry. Say it like you mean it.” Part of the author’s point is that this old model is not seeking a true apology, it is merely going through the motions. Saying “I am sorry” and saying it like I mean it even if I don’t mean it.

In my family we tell about the time our youngest was around 3 and came up with his own form of resistance. He didn’t roll his eyes or say ‘sorry’ with dripping insincerity, as the author in our reading talked about. Instead he quietly added the word “hauk” after saying “Sorry.” It took us a while to figure out what was going on. It wasn’t just “sorry,” either. Any of the words associated with good manners would have this extra word tagged on. “Please, hauk” he would say at the dinner table. “Thank you, hauk” he would mumble when someone passed him what he asked for. “Sorry, hauk” he was say sullenly when we demanded his apology. We eventually figured out that this was his unique and creative form of ‘I don’t really mean it.’ It was his way of negating whatever he had just said.

At that time in his life, our youngest was a professional-level contrarian. He and I got into a lot of fights back then. He and I have both grown a lot since then; and he has given me permission to tell this story. But back then – “Sorry, hauk” was his way of saying “you can make me say it, but you can’t make me mean it.” Eventually we banned the word “hauk.” We banned a made-up word. His response: he would say “sorry” and then go out of the room and mutter ‘hauk’ under his breath.

Say you are sorry. Say it like you mean it. In our reading this morning, the author stumbled upon an elegant rendering of ‘the proper way’ to give apology. She took it to her 4th grade class and put this method to work. She made a poster, “How to Say Sorry” and then listed these four sentence starters underneath: 

I’m sorry for…
This is wrong because…
In the future, I will…
Will you forgive me?

Notice the first point, in religious terms this might be called confession; the first point is not simply “I’m sorry.” It is “I’m sorry for …” There were times when my children were younger when they would apologize, “I’m sorry,” yet they couldn’t name what they were sorry for. They just knew they had done something wrong and had to apologize to move on. I could have used this formula back then.

The point here is to be specific. “I’m sorry for… something in particular” On the poster in that fourth-grade classroom, the first sentence is “I’m sorry for …” It is valuable to teach children, all people really, to say “I am sorry,” but you won’t get over it by glossing over it. Name the offense. It isn’t a time to generalize or be vague. Name it. “I’m sorry for calling you that mean name. I’m sorry for ignoring you. I’m sorry for putting mud on your things.” Whatever offences fourth graders commonly do. Consider what it might sound like for adults. Step one “I’m sorry for …”

Step two, “This is wrong because …” The second point on the teacher’s list is unusual in most lists I have about forgiveness. Confession, Repentance, and Atonement are the three common elements. Name what is wrong, describe what will be different, restore the relationship: Confession, Repentance, and Atonement. So, this new formula adds an extra step. It is a step about building empathy. It is about coming to understand why it was wrong or hurtful. It is about walking a mile in another person’s shoes. “This is wrong because…”

It is about seeing it from the other person’s perspective. This empathy may well be the heart of the whole 4-step process. Can I demonstrate to you that I understand what I have done that has hurt you? Too often the answer people give is “I am apologizing because I got caught.” No. It is wrong because I hurt your feelings. It is wrong because my actions had an impact on you.

Sometimes, when I have been hurt, hearing that the offender understands what went wrong is more powerful than the apology. It is the beginning to the repair to the relationship.

Saying “I’m sorry” is like saying, “I see that something needs to be fixed in our relationship.” Saying “I understand” is like saying “I see what went wrong, I see how it has affected you and us.” Instead of telling people “Say it like you mean it,” instead of inviting people to pretend they mean it, this step invites people to reflect on what it means. Step two, “It is wrong because…”

Step three, “In the future, I will …” Here is our repentance step. It is framed in the positive. “I’m sorry I took your pencil. It is wrong because it is your pencil. In the future, I will not take your pencil.” No. “In the future I will bring my own pencil or I will ask for and wait for permission to use your pencil.” This step is about what I will do instead. This is the turning from the negative to the positive, turning from the offense to the plan forward, turning from the past to the future.

Step one, “I’m sorry for…”
Step two, “It is wrong because…”
Step three “In the future, I will…”
And step four, “Will you forgive me?”

This is more complicated than the earlier formula I offered to my kids when they were young. In the old version, there is just step one: say, “I’m sorry.” There is no step two. Or, step two is for the other person to say their part in the script “I forgive you.” Well, throw that script out. It is not enough. It is too easy to mumble through meaninglessly. This new formula is a little more complicated, but so is life.

Think about what we are attempting to teach! Forgiveness is not about manners. If it were just manners, “Sorry” without really understanding would be fine. But we’re not talking about good manners. We are talking about forgiveness.

In the reading, the author describes how she assumed the poster and the lesson about “How to Say Sorry” would be a one-time thing which might have an impact for some of the kids outside of class. She was wrong. She writes about a shift that happened a few weeks later. She was leading her class through the “weekly Friday afternoon class meeting.” (ibid)

This teacher obviously had a good thing in place already, each week that had a time to process what had happened over the week. She brought up the apology lesson and invited the kids to think about anything they needed to take care of from the past week She figured they would think about it and take care of it privately, outside of class time.

But then someone raised their hand and began apologizing right then.

Before I could stop her, she began blubbering through her apology, reciting each line like she’d planned this for days. Maybe she had. I could see the relief on her face when her friend accepted her apology. The girls smiled shyly and I knew we were on to something good. Before I knew it, students were raising their hands left and right, eager to make amends with people they had offended. Some of the “offended” people hadn’t even realized that they had ever been wronged, but happily forgave anyway.

Then a boy raised his hand. A boy most of the kids did not like for all the usual reasons– he was bossy and rude and generally unpleasant to be around. He apologized to the whole class for being really, really annoying and stated his plans to change. I was among the many individuals exchanging puzzled but impressed glances, and indeed it was one big step in this child’s personal growth. It was especially heartwarming to see how his classmates interacted with him afterward. They really wanted to give him a second chance, and they sincerely tried to help him be his best. I’m sure it wasn’t easy for him to admit to the class that he was annoying, but it was a powerful first step in changing his relationships with everyone. While not perfect, his behavior improved greatly after this event and I am glad I gave him the tools and space to “reset” this way. (ibid)

This formula is like training wheels. I’m not suggesting that as adults we need to learn and use this formula. (Unless you really need it, in which case: have at it.) I’m suggesting instead we notice the key ingredients. Specificity is important. Empathy is a remarkable addition. A positive, reframing focus is needed. And then simply ask for forgiveness.

What the other person does with that request is up to them. Forgiveness is usually worth it. But I don’t recommend fake forgiveness any more than I recommend a fake apology.

I begin with the theory that I can’t make someone else feel sorry anymore than I can make them feel forgiving. I can do my portion of it. I am in control of my actions. I can choose to turn, I can choose to invite the other person into the process with me. They, then, also choose. This formula is for when you really are sorry. This formula may help us learn what an apology really is.

What if you are not sorry? Then don’t apologize! Or, only apologize for that part you are actually sorry for, rather than for the whole argument. Remember the point is to start by being specific. Some people over-apologize to avoid conflict. This formula, like training wheels, may be helpful not only to correct both under-apologizing and over-apologizing – which ever you discover in yourself.

Perhaps you are thinking this would be helpful for someone else in your life. You would like someone else to apologize to you using this formula. Well, I’m not sure. You know the old joke about the congregant shaking the minister’s hand saying, “Fine sermon pastor, my neighbor could really use it.”

But there may be a way for this formula to be reversed so you can name an offense you have received, being specific; and then sharing why it was wrong, inviting the other person into empathy. I don’t know if it would work. It might.

Really, I am inviting you, not your neighbor, into this self-reflection. I am inviting you and me to consider our behaviors, and how we can each be inscribed in the Book of Life for another year. I am inviting us all into this annual opportunity of restoration once more. Now is the time for turning. “For leaves, birds, and animals turning comes instinctively.” How can we look within and take the steps we find needful to turn, ‘til we turn ‘round right?

Turn us around, O God, and bring us back toward you.
Revive our lives, as at the beginning
And turn us toward each other, God
For in isolation there is no life.
  -Jack Riemer #634

In a world without end,
May it be so.