You Are Much More Than the Worst Thing You've Ever Done

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Chalice Lighting

We arrive as we are
With all the burdens we have shouldered along our journeys
With all the good we’ve done and all the mistakes we’ve made
With our sorrow and our joy
This is not yet another place to pretend to be perfect
You are welcome as you are
You are loved as you are

Reading: from 'Long Walk To Freedom' by Nelson Mandela

During Nelson Mandela's 19 years imprisoned on Robben Island, one particular commanding officer was the most brutal of them all:

"A few days before Badenhorst's departure, I was called to the main office. General Steyn was visiting the island and wanted to know if we had any complaints. Badenhorst was there as I went through a list of demands. When I had finished, Badenhorst spoke to me directly.

He told me he would be leaving the island and added: 'I just want to wish you people good luck'. I do not know if I looked dumbfounded, but I was amazed. He spoke these words like a human being and showed a side of himself we had never seen before. I thanked him for his good wishes and wished him luck in his endeavours.

I thought about this moment for a long time afterwards. Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that day in the office, he had revealed that that there was another side to his nature, a side that had been obscured but still existed.

It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency and that, if their hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behaviour."

Message Part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula

We are almost half-way through our current theme - reconciliation. Today, I’d like to explore how we think about and how we try to reconcile the best and the worst we are.

I was taking my dog, Rumi, for a walk one afternoon. Rumi is a big, strong dog. He also likes what he likes. So when he discovers a chicken bone, some discarded bread, or something even more disgusting along the pavement, he really really wants it. When I walk him with a collar, all the force of me holding him back is on his neck, which is bad. So, I got him a harness. It’s strong and sturdy and it spreads the force over a broad area so it won’t hurt him.

This harness has a large velcro area on each side. When it arrived, the name of the maker of the harness was on both of them - in giant letters. I didn’t want to turn him into a walking advertisement so I got replacements. One, of course, says ‘believe in dog.’ I couldn’t help it. The other says simply ‘Good Dog’.

So, I was taking Rumi for this walk and we came upon a woman walking her lovely brown cocker spaniel. They were walking toward us. I usually swerve or cross the road to avoid running directly into other dogs but the woman was very intent on meeting us.  The dogs stood nose to nose. Rumi towered over the spaniel. And then - with no notice - there was a mutual snarling and teeth everywhere. It lasted only a second as we pulled our dogs apart. No one was hurt. The woman looked shocked. She said ‘but, I thought he was a good dog!’ I muttered something about ‘sometimes’, ‘usually’, ‘often’, ‘in some ways’, and we went our separate ways.

Rumi is wonderful with children, handsome, smart, interactive, attentive, soft, and I love him. He’s a good dog. He’s also a thief - stealing food from our counters and even shelves. He gets into fights with other male dogs, destroys carrier bags, chews up remotes, destroyed my Android tablet, and likes to unravel and shred loo roll. He’s a bad dog.

How can I reconcile this? Is he a good dog or a bad dog? And, guess what? This is relevant to humans too. No matter how good any of us is, we’ve all done things we’re not proud of. In small ways and big, no one is perfectly good. The problem is that we can tend to judge people by the worst thing they’ve ever done as if this describes their entire character. If that’s the right thing to do, then I’m nothing but a thief, a liar, a racist, a fighter, and worse.

There is probably no one - even amongst our greatest heroes and heroines - who hasn’t done wrong. If we chose to remember Martin Luther King Jr. by the worst thing he did, we would probably think of him as Martin the adulterer. We could think of Gandhi solely for his habit of sleeping naked with young girls. We would remember Abraham Lincoln, the US president who emancipated the American slaves as Abe the racist.

Imagine the impact of judging everyone by the worst thing they ever did. No one could be considered a good person. Everyone would be suspect. No one would be trusted. No one who didn’t live secluded in a bubble of privacy could ever be elected to any office. We would appreciate no one. We would lose the examples of great leadership, great art, great justice working, and even great love.

We are each many things. We are capable of great kindness and self-sacrifice and we are capable of selfishness and cruelty. We are defined neither by the worst nor the best thing we have ever done.

Reading: from 'Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix' by JK Rowling

(In the book, these words are spoken by Sirius Black)

I want you to listen to me very carefully, Harry. You're not a bad person. You're a very good person, who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn't split into good people and Death Eaters. We've all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That's who we really are.

Message Part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula

Learning that Martin Luther King Jr had affairs does not erase the tremendous good he did. He was still an amazingly courageous leader, a charismatic speaker, a tremendous force for justice, and a person who was willing to sacrifice his own life for a noble cause.

We each have many different inclinations, urges, motivations, strengths, and weakness. We are many things. We are not fully good or fully bad, we are capable of both. This is not just something that matters when we think about other people and how we judge them. It is perhaps even more important to how we think about ourselves.

'Believe in Good'. To be honest, that little phrase started out as just a clever strapline meant to convey that we care more about good than the same word with only one ‘o’.

It’s taken on more meaning though. Believing in good is a rigorous goal. It means keeping faith that good is possible even when the world seems very bad. It means looking for the good in everyone even if what they are showing us is something far from it. And it means striving to bring out the good in ourselves.

I want to be a good person. I want to be someone who is patient and tolerant - someone who is loving and accepting - someone who is slow to anger and quick to love. I want to be someone who sacrifices for others and who works hard for justice and peace. I don’t think I’m alone in my desire to be a good person. I suspect that every one of you would rather be a good person than a bad one - that every one of you would like to choose the path of kindness and love at every turn.

And some of us feel that the worst things we’ve thought or done - the weaker and less lofty of our impulses - mean that we do not deserve to be thought of as good. We imagine - despite all the evidence to the contrary - that there are perfectly good people out there who have never done any wrongs, who never hurt anyone’s feelings, who always choose the kindest, most compassionate action in every circumstance. And then we compare ourselves to these super-good people and think we are not and cannot be good.

But in doing so, we are measuring ourselves against an impossible standard. We eventually find out that the super-good people actually do get angry and impatient sometimes, do act selfishly sometimes, do go through red lights occasionally and sometimes don’t pick up after their dog.

Good is never perfect.

I often think about what traditional religions do. Although there’s a lot I don’t like there, the reality is that they have each had more than a thousand years of identifying and addressing issues in human nature. Buddhism, Christianity, and Mormons all have a practice of confession. I’m not suggesting we start do this, by the way, but I do think there is something important there.

We might think of confession as an easy out to be able to have a sin forgiven by confessing it. If I stole last week, I can have my slate cleaned, and worse - I know that I can steal again and be forgiven again. It seems like a way to make it easier to be bad. And maybe for some people that’s true. For those who want to be good though, confession can be an answer to the trap of wanting to be good but knowing you’re imperfect. If your bad deeds can be wiped away, you are free to strive for greater goodness.

For us, knowing that no one is super-good can free us to be our best - it allows us to recognise that our failings are no worse than those of people we admire. You are much more than the worst thing you’ve done. There is nothing to hold us back from being the people we long to be. Despite everything, let’s keep believing in good.

May it be so.

Closing Words

We've all got both light and dark inside us.
What matters is the part we choose to act on.
That's who we really are.
We can choose.
We can change.
We can grow.
We can be the people we long to be.
May it be so.