Ownership and Forgiveness

Service celebrated at the First Unitarian Church of Hobart, Indiana, on 09 October, 2011; by Rev. Chip Roush

Ten and a half days ago, at sundown on September 28th, many of our Jewish friends celebrated the beginning of the year 5772. Rosh Hashanah—literally, the “head of the year”—is the first day of the year, and therefore it is the anniversary of the creation of the world. On Rosh Hashanah, some believe, God opens the Book of Life and begins to write about us. The Book remains open for ten days, called the Days of Awe, or the High Holy Days.

Observant Jews have many celebrations and rituals during the Days of Awe. One significant task is to seek forgiveness from all those people whom you may have harmed over the previous year. On the last of the High Holy Days, Yom Kippur, humans can seek forgiveness from G-d. However, we must be in right relationship with each other, before we seek to restore our relationship with the creator. Yom Kippur is a day of serious fasting: no food or drink (not even water, unless you are a  young child or have just given birth); no sex; no work; no bathing or perfume; and no wearing of leather shoes. For 25 hours, Jews fast and pray and seek forgiveness from G-d, so that their names will be ritten into the Book of Life.

You should all have a little booklet; I invite you to write and draw in it, as you like. I’ll have suggestions throughout the service, but use it in whatever way is meaningful to you. Since we’re talking about the Book of Life, you might want to draw pictures of people you love, and/or write their names; or draw or write about some things that you
find sacred, or concepts in which you find ultimate meaning. If you want to wait, and do all this in private at home, I encourage you to do so.

Some Jews believe that Yom Kippur “is a day when we connect with the very essence of our being, which remains faithful to G‑d regardless of our outward behavior.” For the next sixty minutes, and for the rest of our lives, may we be  more fully aware of the essence of our being, which remains good and truthful  and beautiful even in those times when we speak or act otherwise.
So may we be.

There is an Chasidic teaching that we are each connected to G-d by a long rope. When we do harm, to our self or others, then that rope breaks; but we can reconcile with G-d, and tie the rope back together with a knot. Of course, each knot takes extra rope; so our errors and shortcomings can actually bring us closer to G-d. Our opening hymn is #218, Who Can Say

William Blake was an English poet and painter; he lived and worked in London, around 200 years ago. Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was also English; he set ten of Blake’s poems to music, in 1957. The second of those ten is named “A Poison Tree.” It begins, “I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.”
Thank you, Maggie and Brianna.

The Rev. Victoria Safford is the minister at White Bear UU in St. Paul, Minnesota; she occasionally writes for the Nation  magazine. This is from her collection of meditations, Walking Toward Morning:

“At One.”

Imagine this.

On the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur,
every fall, every year,
the people make their peace
with anyone they have wronged or slighted or injured or in any way neglected
in the past twelve months.
The task is not to patch things up,
smooth things over, reach a compromise,
or sweep mistakes and uneasy memories under the rug;
the task is not to feel better.
The task is ownership.
The goal is truth, for its own redemptive sake.
I did this.
I said this to you, and it was wrong.
I neglected this.
I botched this.
I betrayed you thusly.

I demeaned you, whether you ever knew it or not.

This is the truth in which both of us are living.
I ask you to forgive me.

Imagine how many deep breaths you would need to take.
Imagine how many doors you’d have to knock on,
how many phone calls you’d have to make,
how many letters, how many lunches and coffees,
how many awkward moments with your children and your parents,
and with strangers
(that cashier to whom you spoke so sharply).
Awkward is irrelevant.
The task is not about comfort, it is about truth,
about wholeness and holiness.

Imagine this.

Someone has been preparing all year to speak with you,
to write to you,
to ask you a hard question.
Perhaps in some way not quite conscious,
you have even known this,
and you have been preparing too.
Finally, you answer the door or the phone, or open the letter with shaky hands,
and there it is,
what you thought you’d been longing for but really have dreaded:
someone is asking your forgiveness.
The task is not about comfort, it is about truth.
Awkward is irrelevant.
You get to choose now, you have to choose,
whether and how you will participate in restoration.
Abandon the pleasant piety
that claims knee-jerk forgiveness as the unquestioned moral course.
You get to choose which way will be right in this case,
between you as persons and with all your gods.
What response will make the world more whole?


Something yearns in us to come round right.
Something creaky, rusty, heavy, almost calcified within us tries—-
in spite of us and of all our fears and self-deceptions—-
to turn and turn and creak
and turn again and come round a little truer.
Something in us stretches toward conversion.
Imagine healing, wholly, from within.

David S. Blanchard serves the Unitarian Universalist Church of Canton, in upstate New York. He was also born in New York state, in 1958. This is from his “The Art of Forgiveness”

Forgiveness is a somewhat reckless, typically illogical act.
A leap of faith, if you will.
When Jesus preached forgiveness,
people thought he was insane.
Loving your neighbor is one thing,
but your enemies, too?
…what about those of us who live in the “real world”?
Do we have to do it too?

I suppose it depends on what we want from life.
Forgiveness in the world is still a bit reckless and illogical.
But so is love,
having children,
or creating anything that we are willing to give away.
But we do these things all the time,
and we trust that because we have done them,
we will be more fulfilled,
more connected,
more present to the joys and wonders of the world.
The alternative is to be satisfied with dismal little corroded existences.
But most of the time,
we rarely make a conscious choice between the two.

It is through forgiveness
that we can discover the freedom it takes
to place ourselves in right relation
to the divine,
with those we love and care about,
and with ourselves.
It may not be logical, but forgiveness—-
clear and unconditional—-
frees the forgiver
more deeply than the person being forgiven.
…It’s a bold and constructive step
based in an [understanding]
that forgiveness withheld is a poison to the soul.
When we hold back forgiveness,
we repeat over and over our hurt,
reassuring ourselves of our indignation.
Some people live their lives off that pain.
It’s not required.
Real power and authentic freedom
come with what is so hard to do:  forgive.

In the end,
those who have found a way to forgive
know that the most profound work of forgiveness
is done not for those who want it,
but for the sake of mending our own soul
and for the freedom we find
when we recklessly squander our forgiveness.

As Jesus and many other teachers have noted, the sun shines on the evil and the good; the rain falls on the just and the unjust. A mistreated dog will still run to hir human, with love in hir eyes. Nature, both sublimely beautiful and inescapably cruel, holds no grudges.

And so it is that we humans, who have been wronged, who are often resentful and angry—-and who have done wrong, and need to beg forgiveness, ourselves—-invite into our presence the metaphorical meanings of the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, known as the Goddess of Mercy; and Agni, Indian God of Fire and Forgiveness. We call upon the Roman Goddess, Clementia; and beseech Allah, using the title, Al-Ghafur—“the All-Forgiving.”

We think of the times when we have been given mercy; and we recall the difficult work we have done to forgive others; we honor the value of the human practice of forgiveness;

we name our gratitude to be alive, this day;
and to be as healthy, mentally and physically, as we are;

we lift up those joys & sorrows just mentioned,
and those which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts;

we desire comfort for the family and friends of Steve Jobs,
and for all those who mourn
not only his life-changing inventions,
but also his culture-changing business practices.

we desire that the Occupy Wall Street movement,
and its sibling groups across our nation,
continue in peaceful, nonviolent protest;
we desire that they further waken our country
to not only the injustice,
but the real dangers,
of the widening disparity in wealth;

we desire to participate,
fully and effectively,
in confession, forgiveness,
and reconciliation;

We desire enough food, and shelter,
and peace of mind
for all beings this day;
we pledge ourselves in pursuit of this goal.
Praise for living.
So may we be.

Once upon a time, there lived a magic pizza –
no matter how many slices people bought, still the same pizza
sometimes, the pizza had pepperoni, sometimes mushrooms, but usually cheese
*never* olives, which made the olives sad
every day, the olives would talk to the pizza – “please use us today”

So olives sank back into their olive juice,
and told stories to each other about how mean and unfair the pizza was.

weeks went by, and a customer called and ordered an olive pizza
so the pizza asked for a few olives

what do you think happened?
{children answer}
a few olives went, but they had been angry for so long,
telling themselves how they’d been wronged,
that they were bitter, which made the pizza taste bad

the next day, the customer came in and complained
the shop owner apologized, offered a free pizza.
Again, asked for olives
Again, the olives were angry and bitter.

This time the customer was still in the store, and complained right away.

The magic pizza saw what was happening,
and hurried to the olives.
The pizza apologized; said it had been wrong all along, that olives were delicious,
and the pizza asked the olives for forgiveness

the olives did forgive, and sent their plumpest, happiest olives out this time,
and the customer raved: best olive pizza ever.

Now, every Wednesday is olive pizza day,
and people come from all over, to eat pizza happily ever after.

[draw a pizza in your little book?]

How many of you have forgiven someone who wronged you? How many are still working on—or have no interest in—forgiving somebody? How many have done at least one thing for which you needed forgiveness from another?

As far as I can tell, human wholeness requires a complex and interconnected process, involving confession, forgiveness, reparation and finally, reconciliation.

Forgiveness is part of the process by which we make our relationships whole again.

Confession is also part of it. It is best if the person who caused the harm will take ownership, and admit their role. But if that person is gone, or simply cannot or will not confess, then the wronged party can name it, and own his or her feelings about it.

Forgiveness does not mean that we forget; it does not mean that we stop trying to make it better. Reparations can still be made. *And* we forgive in order to let go, to move on, to stop the harm from continuing. It is not a linear process, we may go back and forth, multiple times.

We may never get all the way through some things. And we can still make *some* progress; we can let go of some things; we can make some things better.

I ask your forgiveness: for anything I have done, which caused harm; or not done, which allowed suffering, in my short time here. If I have ignored you, misunderstood you, said something “funny” that was actually hurtful; or, through my inaction, allowed some harm to come to you, I apologize, and I ask your forgiveness.

I recognize that a group apology is not the most meaningful scenario, so, if it would help, I invite you to please come speak to me in person and allow me to apologize, face-to-face.

Did anybody else feel the room get awkward there? Making an apology is not easy, and watching someone apologize can be uncomfortable, too. But as Victoria Safford reminded us, in our first reading, “The task is not about comfort, it is about truth.”

There is one important caveat here: it may only be appropriate to forgive somebody *after* leaving the situation. There has been too much abuse, down through the centuries, all over the world, inflicted by encouraging or requiring people to continue in harmful circumstances, and to forgive the person or people hurting them.

I still think that forgiveness is a healthful process, in the long term, but it is probably better if we get away from the harm before we attempt to forgive.

Those who are trapped in a situation can work on forgiveness, if it comes from within them, and is not being required. Forced forgiveness is not forgiveness at all, but simply another form of abuse.

All of this raises the question: why forgive at all? If a person has been abused, if someone is horribly traumatized, could it not be *more* appropriate to refuse to forgive their abuser?

If I were a member of the Kercher family, mourning Meredith since she was murdered, almost four years ago-—if I believed that Amanda Knox had killed my poor Meredith, how could I find it in my heart to forgive Knox, or to forgive the court that freed her?

17-year-old Chris Sigler wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance club at Sequoyah High School, in Madisonville, Tennessee. Chris is straight, but his older sister identifies as bisexual, and he had seen her bullied, and harassed.

He tried to start a GSA-—a gay-straight alliance-—back in August. Approximately 150 students had supported the club, but the Principal would not allow it. So Chris wrote on the back of a T-shirt: “GSA: we’ve got your back!” He wore it to school a few times, and experienced a lot of bullying and insults from some students. One teacher tried to make him take it off.

The last time he wore the shirt, a little over a week ago, now, Principal Moser came into his class, and ordered all the other students out. After everyone had gone (except Chris’ sister, who refused to leave), Moser shoved Chris, and bumped him in the chest several times, repeating, “who’s the big man now?”

If somebody larger than me, with significant power over me, assaulted me while I was trying to do something good in the world, I don’t know how long it would take me to forgive that person.

I do feel that until I *was* able to forgive him, the experience would continue to live in me, festering and perpetuating the harm. Adapting, slightly, David Blanchard’s words from our second reading, “When we hold back forgiveness, we repeat over and over our hurt…In the end, those who have found a way…know that the most profound work of
forgiveness is done *not* for those who [harmed us], but for the sake of mending our own soul.”

I hope, for their sakes, that the Kercher family and the Sigler family are eventually able to forgive.

I also hope that they continue to work, to seek reparations, to struggle for justice. May their work, and their forgiveness, bring them peace.

…and speaking of reparations work, and the need for forgiveness, let us speak a moment about the people of  Occupy Wall Street.

On the website WeAreThe99percent.tumblr.com, they introduce themselves this way:
“Who are we? Well, who are you? If you’re reading this, there’s  a 99 percent chance that you’re one of us.

You’re someone who doesn’t know whether there’s going to be enough money to make this month’s rent. You’re someone who gets sick and  toughs it out because you’ll never afford the hospital bills. You’re someone who’s trying to move a mountain of debt that never seems to get any smaller no matter how hard you try.

You do all the things you’re supposed to do. You buy store brands. You get a second job. You take classes to improve your skills. But it’s not  enough. It’s never enough. The anxiety, the frustration, the powerlessness is still there, hovering like a storm crow. Every month you make it is a victory, but a Pyrrhic one — once you’re over the hump, all you can do is think about the next [month] and how much harder it’s…going to be.

They say it’s because you’re lazy. They say it’s because you make poor choices. They say it’s because you’re spoiled. If you’d only apply yourself a little more, worked a little harder, planned a little better, things would go well for you. Why do you need more help? Haven’t they helped you enough? They say you have no one to blame but yourself. They say it’s all your fault.

They are the 1 percent. They are the banks, the mortgage industry, the insurance industry. They are the important ones. They need help and get  bailed out and are praised as job creators. We need help and get nothing and are called entitled. We live in a society made for them, not for us. It’s their world, not ours. If we’re lucky, they’ll let us work in it so long as we don’t question [them].

We are the 99 percent. We are everyone else. And we will no longer be silent. It’s time the 1 percent got to know us a little better. On  Sept. 17, 2011, the 99 percent will converge on Wall Street to let the 1 percent know just how frustrated they are with living in a world made for someone else.”

Three weeks later, there are now hundreds and thousands of people occupying Wall Street in a nonviolent protest. It has been a nonviolent  protest, even though the police have repeatedly used pepper spray to incite and control the peaceable people exercising their First Amendment rights to freedom of assembly.

Three weeks later, similar occupations have sprung up in over 1000 U.S. cities and in over 100 cities around the world.

Meanwhile, corporate-owned media reports, “Protests Spread Across the Country With No Unified Message,” as if the sheer number of ways that we are anxious about our country and its future were a sign of unfitness in the movement, instead of an indication of how many  issues need to be addressed.

There are fewer and fewer rich people; there aren’t many rich states—the vast majority of our United States are cutting programs and cutting  benefitsto keep their budgets afloat; there are not even many rich *countries* left. But the banks, and the insurance companies  and the petroleum-based corporations all report rising profits.

I am searching for a way to forgive the corporations and the politicians they subsidize. I don’t want my anger to poison my life. I  stand with the 99%; I will work for justice; and I will find ways to forgive, so that my life and my work is joyful rather than corroded or bitter.

While I am at it, I will work on a way to forgive our Unitarian Universalist Association for not yet taking a leadership role in the Occupy Wall Street and “We Are the 99%” movements.

Like many in the United States, there is still enough of the Protestant Work Ethic in our cultural DNA that we worry if we are not rich—-or at least, if we do not *appear* rich—-then we will not get into heaven.

I dare say that at least a third of us, in this sanctuary, do not even believe in heaven; but way too many of us, in some deep pre-conscious part of our brains, do believe that our financial worth somehow demonstrates our moral worth.

Look, I know I’ll be home in Michigan all next week, but if you want to talk this afternoon, or email or call, to set up an appointment for the week after—I will absolutely listen, if you need *somebody* to talk to about your financial worries. I cannot promise you much help, but sometimes just telling somebody can help us get through.

So, I need to forgive our UUA, and many of our UU siblings, because they have not really acknowledged or addressed our financial realities.

I’ll bet some of you also have issues for which you need to forgive our UUA; and probably some for which you need to forgive our beloved First Unitarian Church of Hobart congregational community.

For example, some of you may be working on a way to forgive the church for hiring such a radical as me to serve as your Interim Minister.

Some of you may think that the congregation places too much emphasis on social justice work. Some may think the church does not do *enough* in the world. Some may feel frustrated that our congregation is not bigger; some may feel sad that there are already too many people whom they do not know thoroughly.

Some may wish that we offered Sunday School at the same time as worship, so the sermon time could be adult-focused and quiet; some may wish that our children and youth were even more involved on our Sunday mornings.

Some may wish that the church were not so predominantly European-American. Some may think that we focus too much on bisexual, gay, lesbian and transgender issues; some may feel that there is much more we could be doing. Undoubtedly, some of us think that the congregation is too Christian, too Buddhist, too Humanist, too Pagan, too
Atheist, or too New-Age-y. At least a few of us think we are too theologically diverse, and a more consistent vision would help us thrive.

Some of us are angry with, and struggling to forgive, the congregation for not doing enough for us when we had a specific need. Some feel that we hurt their pride by offering too much help; and are striving to forgive that.

There are many ways that our church community may not live up to our individual ideals; may we all continue to work to shape the congregation in the ways we feel best, *and* to forgive ourselves and each other as we fall short in our efforts.

I’ve talked a lot about the *need* to forgive, but how do we actually *do* it? Alas, I don’t really know. I know you cannot force it; it takes time. And I do know that many, many of our human cousins, who have suffered truly terrible things, *do* somehow come to forgive.

Part of forgiveness appears to be owning our emotions. As Maggie sang earlier, “I was angry with my friend: I told my wrath, my wrath did  end. I was angry with my foe: I told it not, my wrath did grow.” Expressing our feelings—-owning and naming our needs-—can sometimes help.

It can also be useful if we can somehow find compassion for the person or persons involved.

My wife, Becky, and I went to a wedding last weekend. The groom’s father is a judge, so he officiated the ceremony. The groom’s sister and the bride’s brother both delivered readings about love and marriage and sacrifice and teamwork. It was all very lovely. Later, as the picture-taking was finished, and the reception was about to begin, the couple invited a minister to come to the microphone and say grace before dinner.

The minister went forward, with her bible, and took it on herself to offer two more long readings and then delivered a prayer that had few words about the couple who had just gotten married, and barely mentioned the food we were about to eat, but did go on at length about the proper definition of marriage, which included precisely one man and one woman, period, amen.

I was fuming. I was embarrassed for the couple and professionally ashamed, that a fellow minister could be so inappropriate. If the bride had wanted a whole chapter of First Corinthians recited at her wedding, she probably would have arranged for it. And neither of the newlyweds struck me as people who had hoped to use their special day as a platform for the minister’s particular beliefs.

I ranted and raved to myself, imagining how I might go over to “educate” the minister on how she had failed to perform her duties. Halfway through the buffet line, it finally dawned on me that the prayer had been over for quite a while, and I was still allowing it to ruin my good time.

Why was I so angry? Could I not find some compassion for this minister, who was obviously in so much existential pain herself that she could not see how inappropriate were her actions?

As Blanchard wrote, “forgiveness withheld is a poison to the soul.” In my anger, I had been corroding my own good time. Almost as soon as I realized this, I let go of my resentment. I mentally forgave the minister and thought for her a short blessing that she find some peace, and I went back to enjoying the reception.

…and that gets me back to the bankers. The Rev. Dr. Thandeka recently wrote an essay which included one of the bankers responsible for so many of the bad mortgages which were part of the recent financial crisis. He knew the mortgages were bad; everybody in his office knew they were bad. They knew they were setting people up to fail, but they could see no way out. This particular banker had a vial of cocaine on his desk, in plain sight which he used to get through the day.

Rather than condemning the banker; Thandeka found compassion for him. She recognized the trauma that he and his fellow bankers felt, doing things that were against their own conscience. She recognized his drug abuse as a sign of his pain.

Thandeka recommends that we work to change the system, not only for the people losing their homes, but also for the bankers, losing their souls.

And while we are finding compassion and forgiveness for our human cousins struggling, at all levels, within the system, let us also feel compassion and forgiveness for ourselves.

Let us find ways to own our experiences and forgive ourselves for any misdeeds we may have committed. If necessary, we could name our errors and wrongdoings; perhaps, go home and write them in our little books (or use bigger books, if necessary) and then use those books to make reparations and to forgive ourselves and feel healing compassion
for who we have been, who we are now and who we are becoming.

For harming others, through our action or inaction, we forgive ourselves and each other.

For harming ourselves with harsh judgments and isolation, we forgive ourselves and each other.

For another year of dedicating more energy to keeping up appearances rather than living into authentic engagement, we forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.

Please rise, in body or spirit—or remain seated, if you are helping a child—and join in our closing hymn, #1037, We Begin  Again in Love
So may we be.

Our closing words are from Victoria Safford: “Imagine.  Something yearns in us to come round right. Something creaky, rusty, heavy, almost calcified within us tries—in spite of us and of all our fears and self-deceptions—to turn and turn and creak and turn again and come round a little truer.  Something in us stretches toward…healing.”
So may we be.

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