Rev. Douglas Taylor
My mother’s father’s name was Ashley Walter Strong. You don’t know him, but you know me and that is close enough. He died when I was seven or eight years old, and my middle name, Ashley (which is also Keenan’s middle name) is for him. I know him mostly through the stories my mother has told me. He was a gentle man, always thinking of others. He was a member of the Old Stone Universalist Church in Schuylur Lake, NY where his wife, Marie, played the organ and was Superintendent of the Church School, and where his daughter, my mother Elizabeth, grew up and was teaching in the Sunday school as early as eighth grade. Grandpa Strong served as Moderator and then President of the New York Convention of Universalists in the mid 1950’s. It was in that role that he met the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1956 Ashley was moderator of the State Convention which was meeting in Cortland that year. Dr. King was the featured speaker and as the moderator it was my grandfather’s responsibility to introduce him.
By this time, young Dr. King had successfully navigated the Montgomery bus boycott resulting in a U.S. district court decision that segregation of municipal buses is unconstitutional. (Although the official Supreme Court decision upholding the lower court decision was still a few months away.) Dr. King had been arrested once by this time; (although the first bomb would not appear on his front porch for another six months.) The summer of 1956 was before Dr. King and his wife traveled to India to study Mahatma Gandhi’s policies of nonviolence. It was before James Meredith tried to enroll at the University of Mississippi, before King was jailed in Birmingham where he wrote his stirring Letter from the Birmingham Jail, before the 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech during the march on Washington. This was before King visited West Berlin, before he met with the Pope in Rome, before he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This was before Malcolm X was murdered, before the march from Selma to Montgomery, the event at which Unitarian minister, James Reeb, was beaten to death. It was before President Johnson signed the voting rights bill, before the 1967 riots in Detroit and in Newark and in Jackson Mississippi. It was almost twelve years before Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray in Memphis.
My grandfather stood at the lectern to introduce Dr. King to the 1956 State Convention delegates and attendees and had no way of knowing what would unfold over the next dozen years for that man or for the nation. He knew about King’s education and vocation, he knew about the bus boycott and the scope of the issues King and others were trying to address. He knew these were issues that he and the other Universalists there were deeply concerned about. He could sense the fire and the passion in this man.
Can you imagine yourself in my grandfather’s position? Standing before an assembly of people like you and me, introducing Dr. King. When I asked my mom about it, she wrote,
I know he was so proud of being able to introduce Dr. King and be in such close contact with him. Knowing Dad, I would say that he stood in the same spiritual awe as I did. Dad had a deep respect for the integrity and ability to carry out convictions that Dr. King was living out in his life. We were all so proud of being Universalists that day. We had recognized early that this was a man who could change the conditions of the Negro in America and the world.
My mom sent me a copy of the speech which was reprinted in the Empire State Universalist periodical (November 1956, pp 7-10). She admitted she didn’t remember the words he spoke, but deeply remembered that they were powerful. She said that at the time she got the message of acceptance, love, non-violence, and that beloved community begins within one’s heart and actions. She was the same age my daughter is now when she heard King speak.
King’s speech before the New York State Convention of Universalists in 1956 was not a landmark sermon. It is not one that is reprinted in books or touted as the speech that marked the beginning or the culmination of a grand moment in the movement. King was not at his most eloquent, those he was certainly eloquent enough; and the speech certainly proved momentous enough for those who experienced it. The speech covered three areas that mark it as one of his early speeches. He offered a powerful overview of the history of slavery and oppression in America. He described the use of nonviolent resistance as modeled by Gandhi. And he spoke at length about agape love and the power of “an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.” He said, “When we rise to love on the agape level we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them.” And he closed with this statement of his vision and his ultimate goal, “Through wisely and courageously using this method [of nonviolent resistance] we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity into the bright and glittering daylight of freedom and justice.”
In these stirring words, we find the seeds that would grow into the powerful phrases and concepts that kindled the conscience of a nation. In these stirring words, we behold the vision that carried the people forward. The vision King offered the nation was a powerful vision calling us to move forward by staying true to the fundamental statements of who we are and who we have been as a country since our inception. King cast a vision of the beloved community united to defeat racism and segregation, united to defeat economic pattern of disparity and inequality of opportunity, united to defeat the great sin of war.
It is interesting to note that nowadays we try to tame King’s message by saying it is a message about racism. We try to contain it into a narrow concept defined by history and consumable only as a nice story of something that happened once upon a time for black people. But the message can not be so contained and ignored because the vision was not simply a vision of voting rights and desegregation. The message can not be contained because the vision can not be contained. King’s vision was of the beloved community and it included all God’s children. King’s vision was as much about peace as he spoke out against the Vietnam War. His vision was as much about economic opportunity as he spoke in support of striking workers. King’s vision was not for some people during some time now past. His vision was for the nation to rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed, that all people are created equal. King’s vision was less about desegregation for blacks and more about seeing the nation through the crisis of democracy with which it was struggling.
King became the man he was not simply of his own force of will. It must be recognized that King spoke at a time of great crisis for the country. Had King done all that he did a generation earlier he would have been notice, certainly, but I doubt he would have been effective. The message was delivered and the vision cast at a moment in our history when we most needed it.
I read somewhere a compelling analysis of the history of crises of democracy in American history, and searched high and low to find the thread again but failed. As best I can recreate the analysis, there have been five ‘crises of democracy’ in the history of our nation. A ‘crisis of democracy’ is a time when the process of democracy is in danger of being supplanted by other more restrictive forms of government. Aristotle said, “A democracy, when put to the strain, grows weak, and is supplanted by oligarchy.” (Oligarchy is a government run by an elite few.) People talk about signs that we are becoming a theocracy or a plutocracy or even a fascist regime, but in essence these are all forms of oligarchy.
In the ‘five crises of democracy’ analysis our current situation is, of course, the fifth example. The time of Dr. Martin Luther King was the fourth. I wish I could tell you all five because it has been nagging me and now it will likely nag at several of you as well, for which I apologize. (Certain the Civil War was one of the five, but beyond that we’ll just need to get back to it later.) Compelling idea, isn’t it, these crises of democracy?
But I find that it fits. King’s message was not contained in the struggle for voting rights. His message was to address the crisis of democracy in the nation. In his 1958 book Strive Toward Freedom, the Montgomery Story, he wrote:
History has thrust upon our generation an indescribably important destiny – to complete a process of democratization which our nation has too long developed too slowly … How we deal with this crucial situation will determine our moral health as individuals, our cultural health as a region, our political health as a nation, and our prestige as a leader of the free world. (MLK, Strive Toward Freedom, 1958)
Of course, implied in the fact that they are listed as five separate crises is the idea that each crisis is different from the preceding crises. Yet ministers are regularly preaching sermons about Martin Luther King’s dream and weighing how we are doing against it today. This concept of ‘five crises of democracy’ suggests that perhaps the message King delivered during that crisis is not the message we need now because we have moved into a new crisis. Oh, to be sure, the base message that equality and justice are inalienable rights is still the core solution to our problem. But beyond that, do we need another vision, a new message to inspire the people to rise up and challenge the problems of our day? Perhaps.
In his 1967 book, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community? King wrote:
The church has an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. It must affirm that every human life is a reflection of divinity, and that every act of injustice mars and defaces the image of God in man.
The first thing I hear in this is the call for religion to recognize its role in ushering in a solution to national problems. In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail he wrote that the church had been behaving like a thermometer of culture when it used to be like a thermostat! The second thing I hear is a question: during King’s time, the church had an opportunity and a duty to lift up its voice like a trumpet and declare unto the people the immorality of segregation. What is the pervasive immorality of our day that we as religious people should be trumpeting against?
I would put my money on ‘Greed,’ the immoral amassing of more than your need, the unprincipled quest for financial success. The contemporary crisis that threatens democracy itself is the gluttonous rush to buildup your bank account while running morally bankrupt. We are a nation in trouble and as was true in King’s day, the first step continues to be to sound the alarm, to raise our voices like a trumpet to declare unto the people the immorality of downsizing and outsourcing, of white-collar malfeasance and the political & lobbying corruption. There may be loopholes in the tax codes and laws that allow obnoxious write-offs for big industry, but just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is right! And in another arena – the veneer of nobility has worn off the occupation of Iraq and the last reason standing is greed.
Martin Luther King had a certain measure of success in his campaign for desegregation and the guarantee of voting rights. King had a measure of success in his efforts to wake the conscience of the nation to the immorality of racism. His message and his vision, however was not contained by racism alone. A key demand in his I Have a Dream speech was for “a national minimum wage act that will give all Americans a decent standard of living.” Dr. King died while supporting striking sanitation workers in Memphis, TN who were struggling for a living wage and for their dignity. Dr. King said,
There is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent us from paying an adequate wage to every American worker whether a hospital worker, laundry worker, maid, or day laborer.
Perhaps King’s vision still serves for our current crisis, as there are still parts of that vision we have not fully heard.
I dream of a day when our vision is clear enough to recognize that 36 million people in American living in poverty is unacceptable and that we can do something about it. I dream of a day when we look each other in the eye and say to each other ‘13 million children living in poverty in this country, that is unacceptable and we can do something about it.’ I dream of a day when increasing our teachers’ take-home pay will trump tax-breaks for tycoons; when providing for the poor pulls rank over putting them in prison. I dream of a day when we put our great wisdom and wealth to work feeding the hungry, clothing the naked and housing the homeless. I dream of a day when our nation is recognized as the leader of the free world not because of the magnitude of our military but for the capacity of our compassion. I dream of a day when we wake up and realize that before we can be a great nation we must first be a good nation. And there is nothing but a lack of social vision to prevent that day from coming.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Rev. Douglas Taylor
Predictions of the complete destruction of the earth and all life as we know it have gathered quite a large following of late. And these predictions are told in vivid detail down to the specific sorts of suffering to be visited upon anyone not a part of your particular saved or chosen group. Nostradamus and Messianic Taoism, the Hopi and the Hindu: it seems like everyone has a grand prophecy of how the world will end.
In the year one thousand, almost all of Rome emptied out onto a hill to witness the end of history and the second coming of Christ. It was exciting and tense until night fell and everyone went home … disappointed … and amazed that it had simply been another ordinary day.
In 1994, for example, a group led by radio preacher Harold Camping felt sure the Lord would return that September. When the date began to look doubtful, Camping recalculated and said that Jesus had to come by October 2. He didn’t.
The year 1988 saw the publication of a little book by Edgar Whisenant titled 88 Reasons Why the Rapture Will Be in 1988! Whisenant sold 4.5 million copies of his book, which nevertheless turned out to be dead wrong. Undeterred, Whisenant announced he had forgotten to account for the year 0, leaving him off by one year. He then published another book, Final Shout, claiming that Jesus would really return in 1989 … and again wound up with egg on his face. (The Merciful God of Prophecy by Tim LaHaye p256)
Mark Twain’s assessment is that there won’t be a grand catastrophe, no terrible calamity. We will be finished instead, he says, by our small fears, the daily compounding of what Twain calls, “one damn thing after another.”
The nice part seems to be that most of the prophecies and predictions also include the perk that after a major cataclysm there will be an unprecedented era of peace and harmony. I fear, however, that it too easily leads to a mentality whereby we can justify a lot under the idea that we should be destroying the world to save it.
According to recent polls, 40% of Americans believe in the final battle of Armageddon; 59% of Americans believe that the prophecies in the Book of Revelation are literally true. People see the wars in the Middle East as good indicators, as essential steps in the biblical prophecy. Even environmental crisis, like global warming, species extinction, and massive deforestation are welcomed as eschatological blessings.
One scholar, Barbara Rossing, is speaking out eloquently against such beliefs within her own tradition. Rossing is an ordained Lutheran minister and a professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago. In her book, Rapture Exposed, Rossing claims that the Left Behind authors’ interpretation of prophetic biblical verses is “fiction.” Rossing believes that this biblical vision is meant to inspire humanity to seek out “repentance and justice.” She contends that “most Christian churches and biblical scholars condemn Rapture theology as a distortion of Christian faith with little biblical basis.”
While the belief may be something of a betrayal of the accuracy and purpose behind the book of Revelation, a significant faction of the American public still believe it to be the ‘gospel truth.’ Bill Moyers, in the essay “A Shiver Down the Spine,” reflects on the implications of a belief in the Rapture. He asks, “What does this mean for public policy and the environment?” Indeed, that is the pivotal question that sends a shiver down his spine. With people in high government positions espousing a belief in the evangelical protestant version of the end of time, what ramifications are we witnessing in the development of public policy and protection of the environment?
Well, we just saw an attempt to slip Arctic National Wildlife Refuge drilling into a military bill before Congress. Thankfully that didn’t work. Laws to protect the environment are weakly enforced, international treaties on the environment are called “out of date” and promptly ignored, and corporations are given favor over environmental rules. For an administration swept into office for a second term under the banner of “moral values,” there seems to be a disconnect here. When did it become “moral” to exploit the good earth with no thought for the needs of future generations? And Bill Moyer eloquently uncovers the answer: “Why care about the earth when the droughts, floods, famine, and pestilence brought by ecological collapse are signs of the apocalypse foretold in the Bible?” (Ibid, p 8) Indeed, the earth seems to be the big loser in this equation.
I Googled the Rapture Index as Moyers suggests and found the fascinating website that is like a Dow Jones of the Apocalypse. The index tracks world events such as floods, famines, and wild weather as well as the economy, unemployment, and nuclear proliferation. These categories, I will admit, do fit on even my list of how to tell if the world is in trouble. But they also include things like Ecumenism, Apostasy and the great evil conspiracy known as liberalism. The differing events are then totaled into a single number. If the total is below 85 it is considered Slow Prophetic Activity. Between 85 and 110 is considered Moderate, while 110 to 145 is considered Heavy Prophetic Activity. Over 145 is called Fasten Your Seatbelts.
When Moyers checked it was at 144. The index is updated regularly and now stands at 154. Largely this is due to the Iraq War, the tension in Israel, Katrina (and to a lesser degree the Afghanistan earthquake which caused greater damage and loss of life, but unlike Katrina it didn’t happen here,) and a special mention is made for the fight over Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays because Ecumenism and Liberalism are the forces behind the ‘secular’ greeting, and thus it is counted as one more step toward the end of the world.
Interestingly, even though the past several thousand years of recorded history has not seen the end of the world despite hundreds of predictions and prophecies and authoritative forecasts, people still really believe this time, in my lifetime, there will be THE event of all history. It is really going to happen this time.
Tim LaHaye, the co-author of the Left Behind series, has a book out titled The Merciful God of Prophecy: His loving Plan for You in the End Times. Just the title drives the point home. There is a very personal and desperate piece entwined in this business. This is about you.
The psychological basis seems to be that lonely yearning to be told that even you are important, you matter somehow in the grand scheme, even if in only a small way: that the really important time is the one in which you now live. I don’t deny that this lonely yearning is perhaps a fundamental basis for all religion, but I think we can address this yearning in a less violent and cruel fashion, with a story that involved hope and love rather than war and plagues!
So how should we respond to all this? What do Unitarian Universalists believe about the End Times? What do we do with these fantastical stories? How do we respond to people who believe in the biblical account and the bonus features, if you will, of the rapture?
One colleague wrote in sympathy for those who hold these apocalyptic beliefs saying:
There is no need to bring doubt into the hearts of fundamentalists– they are teeming with doubts. They are afraid to allow them to be there. The thing we can offer them is kindness. It is cruel to try to shake someone out of fundamentalist beliefs. They are holding onto them for dear life. What we can and should do is have open arms if they start to fall.
Now, it may be just a belief for which we should be tolerant. Tolerance is an important and good component to communal living. And in that case it would be cruel to try to shake someone’s fundamentalist belief in the rapture. And having “open arms to if they start to fall” is a good and noble stance. However, belief in the rapture is not only unscriptural, its implications are harmful. It is therefore entirely fair to compassionately refute such beliefs based on the implications. It is therefore entirely fair to refute the harmful results of such a belief and offer our own vision of the future in its place.
And what vision of the future do we offer instead? Well, pinning Unitarian Universalism down on a belief is not going to happen, but I bet you would be hard pressed to find any who believe in the rapture. At the close of each sermon I offer a phrase that can serve as the beginning of our vision. Perhaps you’ve noticed. I end each sermon saying, “In a world without end, may it be so.” I’ve only been asked about why I say that a couple of times. I say it because I mean it. I say it because it provides a context for everything I have just said: This matters because no one is going to pull the plug on this if a problem comes up. If there is a virus in the system, we’re just going to have to deal with it here and now. The problems and pain in the world are not to be praised. The world will not be ending, the patient is not terminal and we can not abandon our healing responsibilities.
Included in that is the hope for change. Included in my end of sermon phrase is the recognition of the grand picture and the possibility to make a difference. We like to say that every day is a new day, every day is like the first day of creation: Creation is a dynamic event that continues to take place again and again. Well, let me also say that Judgment day is that way too. Today may be the first day of the rest of your life, but it is also the last. It is today, not some future day when the trumpets sound and mountains crumble and sky turns dark. It is today. Today you will be called upon to account for the pull of both good and evil in your heart and in your deeds. Today you are called upon to say if you have dealt justly and compassionately with others. Today you are called upon to say if you have been true to your faith and your principles, today and everyday. We have loopholes in other places but not here.
Judgment day in our circles is more concerned with spreading more peace instead of war, more food instead of famine, more healthcare instead of plague, more people recognizing they are in grand plan that includes everyone rather instead of the exclusive members-only version. Today is Judgment Day and we have been called to offer more justice and compassion and good deeds done for those in need. Today and every day you are called upon to answer for your actions. Here we honor life, there is far too much work to be done to spend time dreaming up elaborate schemes of exclusion and suffering, for indeed there is far too much of that already. Judgment day has come. The end is now. And indeed a new day has just begun again, with hope and peace enough for all.
In a world without end, may it be so.
What Is the Point?
Rev. Douglas Taylor
What is the point? Why did you bother to get out of bed this morning and come to church? Perhaps you show up out of habit, church attendance can be habit forming. But I can imagine other possibilities. Some of us come for spiritual inspiration and insight; some for ethical encouragement. Some show up because they want to stay connected to friends. Some come to grow and become better persons; some for spiritual or personal healing; and some are here to take part in the justice-making work of this community. Likely you come for a mixture of these and other reasons. I have owned each of these reasons at several points along the way in my own journey. But what is it all for? There are so many different needs met, so many purposes. What is the main thing?
There is a delightful quote from a Methodist Bishop who said, “The main thing is to find the main thing, and to keep the main thing the main thing. That’s the main thing.” This is another one of those “What is the meaning of life?” questions where the answer is: “To give life meaning.” While that is true, it is just too slippery to really hold onto in a meaningful way. There needs to be something we can point to at the end of the day to say, “This is what it is all about.” Again, what is the point?
A long time ago there was a fellow named Micah who lived with his mother in the hill country of Ephraim. He had some extra money, thanks to his mom, which he used to buy some God. By this I mean he had a prayer building erected, graven images made, and even a Levite priest installed. Micah said, “Now I shall surely prosper!” But soon a band of marauding Danites sauntered by, six hundred of them. They knew they would need some graven images and a Levite priest when they finished their hostile takeover of the neighboring city. So they stopped off at Micah’s, sacked his prayer building, and persuaded his Levite Priest to follow them. Well, when Micah heard about this he ran after the six hundred Danites who were all armed with weapons of war and said to them: “You took my Gods that I made and my Levite priest. You have left me with nothing. I want my Gods back!” Some of the Danites replied, “You had better keep your voice down little man or some of our hot-tempered fellows will attack you.” So Micah turned and went home. No priest. No graven images. No God.
This story of Micah in the Hebrew Scriptures (book of Judges, chapters 17 &18) is sometimes cited as the example of external religion: expressed in tangible artifacts and behaviors, portable, too easily lost. This is compared with the other Micah, the big one from the book of Micah, chapter 6, verse 8: “What does God require of you but to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
This for me and many others is a mountain peak in the Bible: A definition of internal religion. So great is the contrast between the two Micahs that they are often painted black and white to say “Be like this Micah, not like the one who lost his Gods.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson, a UU prophet of renown, said in his essay titled, The Oversoul, “When we have broken from our God of tradition, and we have ceased from our God of rhetoric, then may God fire the heart with his presence.” Alfred North Whitehead said, in his book, Religion in the Making, “Religion is what the individual does with his own solitariness.” Micah, Emerson, and Whitehead: they are saying that your spiritual foundation is not in here (gesture around the room), but in here (gesture to body). Do away with the forms and fashions of religion, and build a spiritual center where it will really help: inside. A modern version of this comes out in the conventional wisdom that it is possible and even preferable to be spiritual but not religious: an attempt to draw out the distinction between the internal and external elements of a life of faith.
And yet, all of you have shown up here this morning. All of you have chosen to display the external elements of your life of faith. Why? After all, what is the point, really, of this or any religion? Is it, as Micah from our first story would tell us, worship paid so that a person may prosper? Or is it, rather, as the better-known Micah tells us, about justice, mercy and humility? Well, of course, if we put it like that the answer is obvious and simple: be like the greater Micah. Thank you for coming, you are all excused. Go off to the woods or sit in your armchair at home and do whatever you do in your own solitariness. Go have your own private experience of God’s presence as a fire in your heart. We’ll not be having any Gods built up around here; we won’t even bother for they are too easily lost.
All right, I’m getting carried away a little, but we have a fairly individualized focus as a faith community. We do stress the internal aspects of the religious life and hold a hint of suspicion for external displays. With our way of faith being admittedly subjective and personalized, it begs the question: why bother having a community, however loosely organized? What is the purpose, what is the point?
I don’t know if you are aware of this, but there is a Statement of Purpose for Unitarian Universalism. We have posters with our Principles and Purposes. I’ll give sermons based on the seven principles and the six sources every now and then. Church school curriculum are built around the ideas, hymnals are structured according the principles. We have little wallet sized cards that are given out in the yellow packet we give to guests and visitors that tells our Principles and Purposes. You knew that, right? Oh, yeah, the Principles and Purposes! You may notice, however, that usually when anyone mentions the Principles and Purposes they really just mean the Principles. Many people will have a favorite Principle; does anyone here have a favorite? Maybe #4 about the free and responsible search; or #6 about peace, liberty, and justice; #1 about inherent worth? Do you have one that you like best?
You can look at them, let’s look at them. They’re in the hymnal in the pages just before Hymn #1. The page starts with, “We, The Member Congregations Of The Unitarian Universalist Association, Covenant To Affirm And Promote:” and then you’ll see the seven principles. And under those you’ll see the six sources, or you’ll see just five sources because we added the sixth one about ten years about and this hymnal was published almost 15 years ago. Well, on the very next page there is a little paragraph all alone. It is our Purposes statement and it reads:
The Unitarian Universalist Association shall devote its resources to and exercise its corporate powers for religious, educational, and humanitarian purposes. The primary purpose of the Association is to serve the needs of its member congregations, organize new congregations, extend and strengthen Unitarian Universalist institutions, and implement its principles.
This is not a very exciting paragraph. This is a very institutional paragraph, not something to inspire curriculum, hymns, or sermons. Well, maybe one or two sermons. Maybe it just needs to be revamped, if only to correct the grammar. About half way through the paragraph it states that there is one single over-arching primary purpose, and then goes on to list all four of them. Why do we gather in communities as we do, ‘to serve the needs of our member congregations’? Nobody gets out of bed Sunday morning saying, “I’m going to church today to serve the needs of the member congregations.” [Alright, maybe this morning several members of our choir said this very thing as they got out of bed to go sing at a small sister congregation in Athens PA. But generally, …]
This statement of purpose for the Association may be helpful to the people working deeper in the institution, but it doesn’t work for me and I doubt it works for most of you. The details of running the farm are not the reason we have the farm. The purpose of having a church is not to manage the little details involved in running a church. Committee meetings and pledge drives and all the other sundry accoutrements and trappings of religion are not the point.
The late Peter Fleck, in the title essay of his book, The Blessings of Imperfection, wrote:
Well, let’s be frank and admit that the church has its aggravations. The eternal and oh-so-necessary concern about finances, the annually recurring problems of balancing a budget, of finding money for repainting the vestibule, repairing the boiler and tuning the organ, the ongoing criticism of the minister’s sermons, which are too liberal for some and too orthodox for others, too pedantic for some and too colloquial for others, the endless committee meetings about the Sunday School curriculum and the propriety of social action, the persistent shortage of tenors in the choir. Who wants it? Who needs it?
The answer, (Fleck tells us,) to this question is that we…want it, because we need it. The answer is that the church…, in spite of its shortcomings, the imperfection that characterizes everything made by humans, is better… than no church.
Elaine Pagels, biblical scholar and author of many books delivered the Ware Lecture at our General Assembly back in June. Pagels, as a scholar, is often at odds with the church institution, but as it is described in one story,
…When her young son was diagnosed with what proved to be a terminal illness, Pagels found herself standing in the back of a church and deciding she needed to be there. Despite a lifetime struggle with church doctrine, she recognized that “here was a place to weep without imposing tears upon a child, in a heterogeneous community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.”
The point usually has nothing to do with the accoutrements and trappings of religion, and everything to do with experiences of the holy, or with changing the world, or with salvation, transformation and enlightenment, or any number of other words and phrases we can apply. The point is in becoming better people and making the world a better place.
A. Powell Davies once wrote “I go to church … because I fall below my own standards and need to be constantly brought back to them.” Is that why you come, to be reminded of your standards? Does our congregation help you stay in touch with your best self?
Elaine Pagels said she found the church to be a “community that had gathered to sing, to celebrate, to acknowledge common needs, and to deal with what we cannot control or imagine.” Is that why you show up week after week?
Micah said that all you need is “to do justice, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” Is that why you walk this path with us, in recognition of our kindred values?
John Murray’s great mission was to proclaim a religion that offered “not Hell, but hope and courage.” Do you come to church for these reasons, for hope and courage? Does the workaday world wear you down and dishearten you? Is our congregation a respite for you to refuel?
Howard Thurman wrote in a prayer, “Keep fresh before me the moments of my High Resolve, that in good times or in tempests, I may not forget that to which my life is committed.” Do you come every Sunday because you are committed to something Holy and our church keeps you true to that?
Anthony DeMello’s story suggests that a community of faith is like a lifesaving station on a rocky sea coast, doing our daring, radical, messy work that is ever in danger of being turned into something respectable and therefore irrelevant. Is that why you show up? Are you here to take part in the lifesaving work of this community?
Kathleen Norris said that church “is the one place I know where I am allowed to sing in public, no matter what my voice sounds like, and where I receive a blessing just for showing up.” Is that why you come? Do you come to our church because here you know you are accepted?
All these different articulations could be summed up perhaps as our efforts toward becoming better people and making the world a better place. The purpose of Unitarian Universalism is transformation: personal and social transformation. The task we have before us is at once monumental and yet exquisitely simple. Indeed it can get buried in the weekly and monthly chores of making the coffee and painting the walls and tuning the organ and raising funds for the new hymnal supplement. Yes, this place is imperfect and ineffective and bogged down by our own blindness and bureaucracy. But there are moments when amazing things happen. Transformation! You’ve seen it, been through it? The point is to become better people and to make the world a better place, and we are starting with you.
In this sacred moment of recognition and gratitude let us rededicate our selves to the great purpose for which this community exists: Let us remember the details, the hours of volunteering, the wrangling of money from each others pockets, the debating of principle and practice, the sticky crafts and ridiculous children’s stories, the unfinished hallways, the long town meetings, the long moment of silence in worship each week, the coo of a small child, the smiles and warm handshakes, the laughter, the simple presence of good people, the shared meals, the equal exchange coffee, the peace rallies, the letter-writing campaigns, the disturbing movies that prick the conscience, the peace of a memorial service well done. We gather to effect personal and social transformation.
Let us keep faith with our shared covenant to help one another become better people and to make the world a better place. Let us stay open through the hurt and the promise, and remain true to our great purpose. That is, after all, the point!
In a world without end
May it be so.
Note: Following this sermon, Rev. Taylor suggested we share with each other the stories of how this congregation has been a transforming force in our lives. How has it touched you, moved you, saved you, helped you to save others, encouraged you to reach out, challenged you, and/or changed you? What, for you, has been the point? If you have a story to share, please be in touch with Rev. Taylor at firstname.lastname@example.org or 729-1641. It is hoped that these stories can be shared with the congregation through a Sunday service this coming March 2006.
The Limits of Tolerance
I get worried when Tolerance is put as the central value of our tradition. I’ve actually lost sleep over this. It’s a nuanced objection that I raise, really. I have no strong objection to tolerance itself, of course not! Tolerance is one of the bulwark values of liberal religion. For generations it has been taught that the continuing thread running through the disparate communities of anti-trinitarianism in Poland and Transylvania and England and America over the past four hundred years was not a single philosophy or book or individual, rather it was the three abiding values of Freedom, Reason, and Tolerance! Without these three, could you really call it Unitarianism?
We have ever upheld the freedom of every individual to discover for her-or-himself what is ultimately true and right. We have always espoused the use of reason in this pursuit of truth and understanding. And we have without fail fiercely advocated the importance of tolerance among people of good faith. We proclaim the freedom to use reason and insist on tolerance for others to enjoy that same freedom. Freedom, Reason and Tolerance have historically been seen as the framework around which our faith tradition is built. This I do not deny or attempt in any way to refute. My complaint, rather, stems from what might be considered the loss of the use of reason in this equation. The claim that I am free to believe and behave as I will and you are beholden to tolerate it, so there!
What is missing (other than the use of Reason) in that sense of Tolerance tainted by entitlement is Respect. But I don’t lay the blame in my complaint at the feet of our religious tradition, rather I pile it up to the knees of the culture we wade through each day. Tolerance has become a quick and sloppy way to abdicate participation. And if Tolerance is indeed the shining central value around which all our other values gather then we are in danger of being a vacuous institution little or no real substance and we might just as well close up shop and stop wasting everybody’s time. But let me unpack this a little because I know I can go leaping from point to point with this and I want you to see where I am going in case you want to go there too.
Western culture, and to a greater degree Unitarian Universalism as it is articulated in modern western culture, is the heir of the Enlightenment. Our faith tradition is arguably the most liberal of the Liberal Religions, committed to personal experience and exploration rather than creed and tradition. The term “modernity” has our fingerprints all over it. The broader Western culture around us took on a distinctly Liberal Religious hue a few generations back, hitting a peak perhaps with the Sixties. Suffrage, equality, desegregation, integration, peace, love, and understanding were all in fashion. Now-a-days peace, love, and understanding don’t get much traction. Desegregation, equality, suffrage? These are slipping too.
Tolerance is still popular. In the broader culture, however, tolerance these days is really just a mask worn by apathy. Tolerance used to mean: I reserve the right to be mistaken and to make corrections along the way based on new information. Tolerance used to mean: I think I’ve got it right, but am open to hearing another person’s proof to the contrary. (I still try to function with that concept of tolerance.) The definition of tolerance seems to have shifted, however, to something like: since anybody could be right, nobody is. Since there is a significant possibility that I am mistaken, and that’s ok, it must not matter. It must not be important to be right, or maybe there is no such thing as ‘right.’ Do you see how this could be loosely construed as logic? It certainly doesn’t qualify as the use of reason, but it almost looks like real logic. In the pursuit of Tolerance we lost Truth. At least that is how it is characterized by the conservatives.
Well, every now and then I take a chance and read some of the conservative religious periodicals just to see what is holding the attention of our fundamentalist brethren and sistren. A few years back I found a compelling article written by a Conservative Christian thinker that really rips into our liberal value of tolerance. I found the article compelling because it offered an intelligent, albeit sensationalized for apologetics purposes, critique of this important element of our faith from outside the tradition.
Liberal Tolerance is perhaps the primary challenge to the Christian worldview current in North American popular culture. (That is the first line of the synopsis. It is always nice to know that we’re at the vanguard of the conservative culture’s proclaimed challenge. The article is entitled Deconstructing Liberal Tolerance by Francis J. Beckwith, and is published in a conservative Christian periodical called Christian Research Journal. The Synopsis goes one to say,) Proponents of [the Liberal Tolerance] viewpoint argue that it is intolerant and inconsistent with the principles of a free and open society for Christians (and others) to claim that their moral and religious perspectives are correct and ought to be embraced by all citizens. Liberal Tolerance is not what it appears to be, however. It is a partisan philosophical perspective with its own set of dogmas. It assumes, for instance, a relativistic view of moral and religious knowledge. This assumption has shaped the way many people think about issues such as homosexuality, abortion rights, and religious truth claims, leading them to believe that a liberally tolerant posture concerning these issues is the correct one and that it ought to be reflected in our laws and customs. But this posture is dogmatic, intolerant, and coercive, for it asserts that there is only one correct view on these issues, and if one does not comply with it, one will face public ridicule, demagogic tactics, and perhaps legal reprisals. Liberal Tolerance is neither liberal nor tolerant. (Vol. 22, No. 3, 2000; p29)
I hope you see what I mean when I say it is sensationalized for apologetic purposes, the author overstates his case. ‘Liberal Tolerance is neither liberal nor tolerant.’ That’s just rhetoric. The part that hooked me, however, is this idea that Liberal Tolerance is grounded in relativism. At least that is how it is characterized by the conservatives. And I wonder if there might be something to it. The article from the conservative magazine presents a clever example of this in the form of a dialogue based loosely, it says, on a real-life exchange between a high school teacher and a student:
Consider the following dialogue (based loosely on a real-life exchange) between a high school teacher and her student, Elizabeth:
Teacher: Welcome, students. Since this is the first day of class, I want to lay down some ground rules. First, since no one has the truth, you should be open-minded to the opinions of your fellow students. Second….Elizabeth, do you have a question?
Elizabeth: Yes, I do. If nobody has the truth, isn’t that a good reason for me not to listen to my fellow students? After all, if nobody has the truth, why should I waste my time listening to other people and their opinions. What would be the point? Only if somebody has the truth does it make sense to be open-minded. Don’t you agree?
Teacher: No, I don’t. Are you claiming to know the truth? Isn’t that a bit arrogant and dogmatic?
Elizabeth: Not at all. Rather, I think it’s dogmatic, as well as arrogant, to assert that there is not one person on earth who knows the truth. After all, have you met every person in the world and quizzed them exhaustively? If not, how can you make such a claim? Also, I believe it is actually the opposite of arrogance to say that I will alter my opinions to fit the truth whenever and wherever I find it. And if I happen to think that I have good reason to believe I do know the truth and would like to share it with you, why won’t you listen to me? Why would you automatically discredit my opinion before it is even uttered? I thought we were supposed to listen to everyone’s opinion.
Teacher: This should prove to be an interesting semester.
Another student: (blurts out): Ain’t that the truth. (the students laugh)
Conservative Christians say our tolerance is grounded in religious and moral relativism, I say it is grounded in respect and covenant! I have often described Unitarian Universalism as a community of covenanted seekers: We are not all on the same path but we have promised to support one another along the way. We’re not walking on the same path but we are walking together. We have a covenant that binds us to each other, a set of promises, if you will, that we will treat each other with respect and support. That is something the broader culture lacks: a binding covenant and a commitment to respect.
And not unrelated, there is this misunderstanding of what tolerance is. Tolerance is not an ‘anything-goes’ sort of mentality. 20th century Unitarian theologian James Luther Adams used to say we can have open minds, but not open at both ends. Every now and then we do close our minds around something, sometimes that’s a good thing and sometimes that is not. But that’s the point. I have no problem making a major truth claim now and then. For example: Every person has intrinsic worth and value. Watch, I’ll do it again: There is a transformative power a work in our lives that is known by many names and misunderstood more often than not. This is fun, here’s one I know at least some of you will refute: We are all children of God, and as such are beholden to love one another as we are loved. I know that to be true. All the evidence I have so far confirms the truth of that statement. You may disagree. We should talk about that more. It doesn’t mean I’m not right. It doesn’t mean you’re not right. I could mean neither of us are right, or more likely we’re both almost right, I don’t know.
We can share this because of our commitment to tolerance. You are free to use reason among other tools to discern the deeper truths and the meaning in life. And we can tolerate one another’s differing answers because I also am free to use reason among other tools to discern the deeper truths and the meaning in life. It would almost seem like there is no limit to this, right?
Well, let us push this a little. Are there some things you or I could say that would be intolerable? What if I told jokes about dumb blondes from the pulpit? What if I offered a course on Anti-racism, and included a segment about how black people have small brains compared to white people? What if I said all SUV drivers and all people who shop at Wal-Mart are sinners and should be publicly shamed? Is this tolerable? I don’t know; I’m trying to think about stuff that would push my buttons. Could we tolerate people who are intolerant? Are we accepting of bigots and open-minded about exploitation?
Back in the spring there was a flurry of e-mail on the UU minister’s chat on the topic of Tolerance. The initial question that touched off the series was “How long do I tolerate a person with anti-Semitic leanings?” Most of the situation as it was described involved personal e-mails sent to the minister. For most of this I thought, “Hey, as long as the person is keeping these ‘leanings’ between him-or-herself and the minister, we can talk about tolerance. The minister can offer counsel, a little argument perhaps, and as long as no one is hurt then who am I to say it has crossed a line?”
When the response to this minister’s initial question began to pour in from the colleagues, I read stories for example of a congregant who regularly laced the social hour beverage with LSD and the leadership tolerated it, wondering how to respond for nearly a year. There were stories of a congregant who was known by a few as a date-rapist and who had begun preying on the women of the congregation. There were stories of a congregant who would berate others members viciously and everyone would sort of sigh and tolerate it. All these stories were of individuals breaking faith with the covenant of the congregation through harmful words or deeds and it distressed me and most of my colleagues and I trust it distresses you as well to hear the question ‘shouldn’t we be tolerant and open?’ rather than clear leadership statement that this is appalling and we will not allow it to continue. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail that “There are some things to which a person should be maladjusted.”
It is one thing to tolerate another person’s beliefs, but we can make a very clear distinction and not tolerate words and deeds that harm other people. We will not tolerate injustice, hatred, or bigotry in its varied and sadly plentiful forms. We will not tolerate the denigration of an entire group or class of people in this house of worship. We will not tolerate slander and slurs to be used within these walls. We will not tolerate screaming and shouting as method discourse in this church. We will not tolerate injury or the threat of injury to be perpetrated in this congregation. I’m just getting warmed up here. I bet we could keep going, but let us notice the key ingredient along this line of thinking. The conservative Christians say our tolerance is grounded in religious and moral relativism, I say it is grounded in respect and our sense of covenant! Unitarian Universalism is a community of covenanted seekers: We are not all on the same path but we have promised to support one another along the way.
Now, I am not saying that bigotry, slander, injury and inappropriate acting out does not happen here. I’m not saying we are perfect. And I am not suggesting that when anything like this happens here that our first response should be excommunication! But neither will we just wring our hands while looking the other way. And yes, that might mean that we will tolerate a person’s beliefs but respectfully ask that they believe them somewhere other than here. There are behaviors that we will respectfully not tolerate because they break the covenant, the bond that we have, the promise that we will treat one another as children of God, as members of one family, as partners on the journey of deeper understanding and richer connections.
As I read through this sermon early this morning, it read like I was gearing up to a big confrontation with some one of you here in the congregation who has been acting out – and that is not the case. I am preaching a cloudy skies warning in a time of clear skies. Certainly back in the early spring we had quite a confrontation over the vandalism done by the member of our congregation, Matthew Fox; and The UU Minister’s Chat picked up this conversation about tolerance and behavior a few months after that while we here were working through it. But I am now taking a calm moment in the life of a vibrant, dynamic, growing congregation to tease out important ideas around the topic of tolerance; and to remind us of our promise, our covenant.
And you may be thinking to yourself, ‘I don’t remember signing any covenant. What covenant is he talking about?’ You’ve caught me there. It is an implicit covenant that in indicated in many of our documents about the congregation, it comes out in the sermons and special services, it is between the lines in our newsletter. That is partly why I am preaching about it now, to help make this explicit. If you hadn’t caught on yet, here it is: We have a deep commitment to tolerance in this congregation. Your faith is your own, it will not be coerced. We will tolerate a remarkable range of beliefs and convictions here. You can believe in God, you can believe in ghosts, you can be pro-life or pro-choice or both (like I am), you can believe that ‘evil’ is merely a human construct, you can support the war or the peace efforts, you can be gay, you can shop at Wal-Mart even though I won’t, you can be against gay marriage, you can even believe in Intelligent Design. But that is not the last word on the subject. Tolerance won’t get us all the way there. There are limits to tolerance.
The last word is this: We are in this together. We are in this to make life better. We are in this to encourage and be encouraged in our deepening journeys. Ours is a message of blessing and acceptance, that every person has an innate value and worth, even the ones you disagree with or do not like. It is a message that calls us through the hurt and the promise to treat one another with care and with justice.
In a world without end,
May it be so.
Forgive and Live
Last week during the children’s time, Janet Shortall, our guest preacher, told the story, “What If No One Forgave?” It is a story that I told back in the spring, so it may have been familiar. Basically, the tale is about a little town called Grudgeville where everyone held on dearly to every personal slight or injury ever done to them. A stranger comes into town and teaches them the magic words, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you.” And suddenly all the people are relieved of their burdens. That is, of course, very simplified; but it pulls in the essential pieces. The image that I think captures the imagination of most adults is that of the citizens of Grudgeville all hunched over by the weight of all their grudges.
Forgiveness is perhaps the ultimate religious activity. I could be wrong about that, but it seems to me that religion is less about beliefs and more about relationships – or at least that is how it should be. I recall that Emile Durkheim’s work uncovered the realization that religion at its earliest was less about connecting humans to God and more about connecting humans to each other. Over the ages, one of the startling characteristics of human interaction is that all too often we have trouble connecting to one another. Honest and open human interaction is not easy, and we usually mess it up in lesser and greater degrees. Forgiveness is the process for repairing damaged relationships and it the process of transformative change in an individual. The word Religion, at its roots, is re-ligare, to bind together. Thus I find the topic of forgiveness to be centrally important to living. Forgiveness is such a deeply religious topic with which most people typically have very little familiarity.
Let me tell you a second story now, describing with a different metaphor, the effect of carrying a grudge. This story comes from the writings of a Sufi mystic named Hadrat Muinudin Chishti.
A man was in dire need of funds, and the only way he could acquire them was to sell his house. He did not wish to give up the entire house, so he came to terms with the purchasers by which he retained unrestricted use of one room. He was permitted to store there any of his possessions. Initially, he kept only small items there, and he came from time to time and caused no disturbance. When he changed occupations, as he did occasionally, he brought his tools to the room also. The new owners made no protest to all this. Finally, the man began to keep [small dead animals] in the room, and because of the stench from the decomposition, the whole abode became uninhabitable. The new owners went to court for redress, but the judge ruled that the man had not breached the contract. The owners ended up reselling the house, at a tremendous loss, [back] to the original owner.
Carrying a grudge against another person is like renting out a small room in your soul for someone else’s garbage and filth. You just tuck it up there inside yourself. One small but powerful issue left unaddressed can sap your entire spiritual growth. It stinks, but what are you able to do about it, you’ve rented the room out. The good news is, you don’t have to turn over the whole house. There is something you can do.
And perhaps metaphors are not your cup of tea, fear not. There has been scientific research into this issue, seriously! There has been a considerable amount of scientific research done lately in he field of forgiveness, so much that for a few years forgiveness was considered a field of study rather than a a theological idea. Sir John Templeton was a primary funding source for the Forgiveness Project which housed several research projects studying the psychological and physiological effects of forgiveness. 46 studies according to the website, actually. The studies ranged from marital and parenting problems to victims of violent crimes to national situations such as the one in South Africa a short while ago. Most of the studies were in connection with individuals, they found that the issues surrounding forgiveness were similar at the national level but greatly complicated by institutional and political considerations.
For the research into the more personal levels of forgiveness, researchers found it was a hot topic of interest for participants, and often were flooded with interest. The researchers at one school, however, found they had plenty of female participants, but very few males.
To attract more male participants for a study of forgiveness, Stanford psychologists were forced to adjust the wording of the project. [Researchers] said the word “forgiveness” easily attracted women to participate, but men weren’t calling. In an effort to figure out why, [they] randomly asked a group of men about it. The consensus was the word “forgiveness” is too soft and acquiescing, like a doormat or someone who turns the other cheek. The men suggested the psychologists use the word “grudge” instead, since it’s harsh and seemed more masculine. [The researchers] took their advice and created flyers saying “Got a grudge?” and the calls from men began pouring in.
The general conclusion so far indicates show that the person who forgives is happier and perhaps even healthier. While the goal of forgiving may be noble, the effects are concrete. For example, a study completed at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, indicates that unforgiving responses can erode health, while forgiving responses can enhance it. That is a little vague. Another study done at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, found a strong correlation between unforgiveness and the illnesses associated with high blood pressure. This becomes a little more specific.
There was one study of newlywed couples done by Dr. Worthington which involved electronically monitoring for signs of high stress
“It turns out there is a psychobiology to forgiveness. Transgressions are stressful, you see, and when a trauma happens such as a betrayal, the brain secretes cortisole which burns a memory,” Dr. Worthington explained. “The idea to forgive and forget is crazy! Your whole body is telling you to remember this trauma, so it won’t happen again. People who don’t forgive, though, have a build up of cortisole,” he continued. “This puts the body under stress, and every time they think about the wrong done them, there’s even more stress. I always say, ‘learn to forgive because it’s good for your health.’”
And one more, I just have to share with you, is the conclusions of a Stanford study of forgiveness done by Dr. Luskin, who says, “Forgiveness is about how you handle [frustrations about how things in life never seem quite aligned. A common choice is to blame it on someone else.” Blaming others causes more suffering because people rarely change, he says. It’s better to break the habit of blame and accept the way things are. For those who cause us grievances, Luskin suggests: “Rent them a small room, not the whole house.” Well, sometimes, renting your grudges a small room is a step forward; and sometimes it is what holds you back. You’ll need to sort out which is true for you. And it seems that scientist will occasionally drift into the use of metaphor.
I do hope you noticed that at least one researcher specifically stated, and I got the sense in my reading that there was general agreement on this, that the “and forget” part of the old cliché is not a good idea. From the antiphonal reading we did earlier, it was the quote from JFK which said, “Forgive your enemies, but never forget their names.” And none of the other quotes contradicted that. Forgiveness is not amnesia, or a glossing over of the transgression. Forgiveness is not a pretending that everything is back to right or that things are not the way that they are.
Forgiveness is about rebuilding and repairing a relationship that has been injured. It is extending an opportunity for better things to come. It doesn’t mean ignoring an injustice or letting someone treat you badly. It doesn’t mean you’re leaving yourself open to be hurt again. It means, accepting that what has happened has happened, but you are let it be so that there is an opportunity to rebuild. “Forgiveness does not change the past, but it does enlarge the future.”
Much of that interesting research has been done from the perspective of the person who is injured, the one who holds the grudge, the one who would do the forgiving, the victim. And so, much of what is offered is how to deal with that end of it. Often, however, when a relationship has been damaged and forgiveness is needed, it is needed on both sides. Not always, but often.
I remember a sour relationship I had with someone I only see occasionally. Over the years I grew to accept who this person is, to empathize with her so that I was able to forgive her the hurts she had given me. It was a powerfully cleansing step for me. I no longer felt held by the burden of resenting her or carrying my grudge for her. Unfortunately, that was not the end of it. As I accepted her and empathized with her, I began to understand the events form her perspective and to realize that I needed to be forgiven as well. It had been so nice when I thought she was a mean person or at least a misguided one. It was so easy when I only saw how she had overreacted and had said hurtful things. All my friends agreed with me, she was at fault and I was blameless, or nearly so.
I thought I had reached a level of peace and release when I forgave her, but how much deeper a change was wrought when I saw my own contribution, took steps to correct that behavior within myself, and sought her forgiveness. I’ll not forget what happened and how I had been hurt, but neither will that memory stand in the way of the fact that people change.
So, how to do it? The reading from Fred Muir proposes four steps to forgiveness: remorse, resolution, restitution, and restoration. Over the years I have characterized forgiveness as having three steps: confession, atonement, and repentance. When I was younger someone taught me the line: “Make admission, make amends, then we all come back as friends.” Cute, isn’t it? But I bet you’re thinking, “Which one does he want us to remember? There are so many steps, so many different names to all these steps! Ack! How am I supposed to remember how to do this?” There are probably dozens of names for the steps, and dozens of suggested styles that have four or five or eight steps or maybe only two. The essence of it is that Forgiveness is a process of repairing relationships.
First you must admit you have made mistakes. There is a cliché that “confession is good for the soul,” and generally this is very true. And feeling a little guilty for your mistakes, or remorse, as Muir puts is in the reading, isn’t so bad. Guilt is not so bad if you really have hurt someone and you can take the steps to do something with the guilt. I’m certainly not suggesting that you hold onto your guilt; that can prove just as painful, though in a different way, as holding onto your grudges. But with guilt, at least, you can do something. Guilt is like pain. It is information telling you that something is wrong. We don’t want pain! We don’t want guilt! But it serves a purpose. All of us make mistakes; all of us unintentionally, and at times, intentionally injure others through word and deed. Pretending this is not so will not help. So, whichever set of steps or words you’re using, the first thing to do in the process of forgiveness is admit your mistakes.
The next part of forgiveness is to do something with this information. Like the information you receive from physical pain, you have things you can do: you’re your hand out of the very hot water. Don’t stick it in the hot water again. In the same way, information we glean from part one, admitting to mistakes and feeling bad about them, is information we can use to change what we’re doing: don’t say mean things just because you’re angry, and apologize for the mean thing you said just then when you were angry. Call up those people you have injured or hurt and say, “I am sorry.” Call up people who have hurt you and say, “I forgive you.” Apologies, resolution, atonement, amends, whatever you call it, this is the “I’m sorry, I’ll never do it again” phase, or at least, “I’m sorry, I don’t fully understand what I did that has hurt you, how can I make it up to you?”
Finally, the third step could be considered the result of forgiving or being forgiven, but I think of it as the last step to forgiveness, as do most of the “how to be forgiven” lists I looked through. We confess our faults and failings; we make amends with apologies and promises of improvement; and then we improve. We repent, we change our ways, we take to heart the concerns of the other, we begin again in love, we take one more step toward being our better selves. I didn’t say it was simple.
I’ll end by sharing with you this list compiled by one of the researchers (Richard Fitzgibbons) of all the benefits for the one who forgives:
- decreased levels of anger and hostility;
- increased feelings of love;
- improved ability to control anger;
- enhanced capacity to trust;
- freedom from the hold of events of the past;
- no longer repeating negative behaviors;
- improved physical health;
- significant improvement in psychiatric disorders;
- (and I would add, becoming a more loving and empathetic friend, spouse, parent, colleague, child, and overall person!)
On the other hand, one who cannot forgive may continue to suffer endlessly. One who cannot forgive just tucks that grudge up in that rented room inside the soul. As an old Chinese proverb puts it, “The man who opts for revenge should dig two graves.” This work is not only for repairing our relationships; forgiveness is the ultimate religious activity, for it allows you deepen and grow.
In a world without end,
May it be so.