We arrive in this place today
Each of us a complicated being
With dreams and longings
With strengths and power
With fears and disappointment
Life’s hardness has made us cautious and sometimes prickly
It has also given us the power of compassion
We are able to hurt and to make amends for hurting
We are able to have anger but also forgiveness for those who hurt us
May this light shine on what is best in us
May our compassion and love lead to reconciliation amongst us
And help us to bring peace wherever our journeys lead
Reading: The Wild Geese, by Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Message part 1 by Rev Andy Pakula
If you have never hurt anyone, have forgiven everyone who ever hurt you, and have rebuilt every relationship that has ever faltered, this message is not for you. The rest of us will wait as you go off and revel in your perfection… The rest of us are not perfect. We know that we have done wrong in small ways and big. We know that there are grudges we hold onto. We are well aware that relationships once important to us have been permanently damaged by hurts without reconciliation - by wrongs not fully and sincerely atoned for and apologies never fully and truly accepted.
Over the past year, I’ve done many things right and I’ve also done plenty of things wrong. I’ve been judgemental. I’ve been impatient. I’ve been jealous. I’ve been dismissive. I’ve been petty. I’ve thought about vengeance.
I am sorry.
There is something very hard about saying “I am sorry” in this world in a serious and meaningful way. Sure - we can say it on the bus or the tube in all sorts of ways that usually mean not much. But saying ‘I’m sorry’ when someone is angry at us - when we are accepting blame - makes us scarily vulnerable. It feels like we are opening ourselves to criticism and attack. It is so tempting to say “no - you’re the one in the wrong” when a conflict erupts.
But all of us get it wrong from time to time. None of us get through this life without doing things - large and small - that we are not proud of - we do things that stand directly in opposition to our own best self-image and maybe cause us to feel ashamed. We all have a sense of the person we would like to be and we cringe at the ways in which our actions have fallen short of our intentions. If I could do that, we think, maybe I am not and will never be someone I can feel proud to be.
This Wednesday is the Jewish "Day of Atonement" - in Hebrew, it is known as Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur is Judaism’s response to our need to reconcile our personal aspirations with the reality of our actions. On Yom Kippur, Jews pray and fast all day, and acknowledge their failures over the previous year. Yom Kippur provides – as does the Christian practice of confession – a ritualised way to deal with the fact that we know we have not been the people we intended to be. Holding onto this secret shame causes us pain, it makes us feel we need to hide our true selves away. Releasing it is actually a relief.
Without a way to address the tension we feel between what we do and what we know we should do, we tend toward one of two options: First, we can rationalize our deeds – that is to redefine wrong action as right action – something that I fear happens all too often in our society as self-interest becomes enshrined as the greatest good. The other approach we might take is to pretend. If we think that we’re supposed to be all good but know that we’re not, we’ll just have to pretend we are. In fact, we might even try to convince ourselves that we are all–good in our nature and character.
This is not a simple superficial thing that is achieved lightly. It is a painful process of rejecting, condemning, and walling off parts of our own characters. It leaves us cautious and guarded – unwilling to be open to others for fear they will discover the darkness we are so carefully concealing. So very much is lost when we find parts of ourselves unacceptable.
And when we pretend enough to convince ourselves we have nothing we need to change, change becomes impossible. Growth becomes impossible.
We are all made up of many different and often seeming contradictory pieces. Philip Simmons, a Unitarian author, says this: “We do not heal ourselves by scourging or rejecting our sinful parts but by drawing them into a circle of holiness made large enough to include them. There’s nothing our demons enjoy more than a good fight, nothing that confuses them more than our embrace. Our goal, always, is to transform evil through love.”
The way to deal with the darkness in each of our hearts is not to rationalise or to reject it, but rather to accept it. “You do not have to be good” Mary Oliver tells us. “You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.” Acceptance of ourselves as we are is essential. “…let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.” Acceptance is not about choosing to turn to our worst and weakest aspects, but rather an essential step in becoming the person we want to be.
Interestingly, in Judaism, the word that is translated as sin is taken from archery. It literally means “missing the mark.” Sins are those instances where we have failed to be who we know we should be or do what we know we should do. The obvious implication of this approach is that we do aim for what is right and righteous. The work of Yom Kippur – and in fact the work of our lives – is to continue to aim high and then to recognise, accept, and try again when we fall short.
So, today, let us look back over the past year and recognise the places where we have missed the mark - where we have missed the target we ourselves set.
Reading: Consolation, BY Wisława Szymborska (translated by Clare Cavanagh)
They say he read novels to relax,
But only certain kinds:
nothing that ended unhappily.
If anything like that turned up,
enraged, he flung the book into the fire.
True or not,
I’m ready to believe it.
Scanning in his mind so many times and places,
he’d had enough of dying species,
the triumphs of the strong over the weak,
the endless struggles to survive,
all doomed sooner or later.
He’d earned the right to happy endings,
at least in fiction
with its diminutions.
Hence the indispensable
the lovers reunited, the families reconciled,
the doubts dispelled, fidelity rewarded,
fortunes regained, treasures uncovered,
stiff-necked neighbors mending their ways,
good names restored, greed daunted,
old maids married off to worthy parsons,
troublemakers banished to other hemispheres,
forgers of documents tossed down the stairs,
seducers scurrying to the altar,
orphans sheltered, widows comforted,
pride humbled, wounds healed over,
prodigal sons summoned home,
cups of sorrow thrown into the ocean,
hankies drenched with tears of reconciliation,
general merriment and celebration,
and the dog Fido,
gone astray in the first chapter,
turns up barking gladly
in the last.
Message part 2 by Rev Andy Pakula
In Hebrew, Yom Kippur translates as the day of forgiveness. So, it is not a day for beating ourselves up or wallowing in our guilt, but a day dedicated to seeking forgiveness from ourselves and from others and - especially - for granting that forgiveness.
The English name for Yom Kippur is Day of Atonement. The word “Atonement” has very heavy feel to it to me - like the line in Mary Oliver’s poem, The Wild Geese, about walking ‘...on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.’ Atonement sounds to me more like punishment than forgiveness. But the word atonement was created in the early 16th century meaning literally “at-one-ment” - the process of reconciling and becoming - once again - one.
Today is a day for reuniting and reconciling with one another and it is a day for reconciling with our own selves. We know that reconciliation is about apology and forgiveness, but both are hard - very hard. It’s so much more likely that our apologies will be half-hearted and our forgiveness is only tentatively given.
If I apologise because I feel like I should to make peace, to smooth things over, to end the discomfort - then my apology may be little more than words. It is only a deep apology if I truly recognise what I have done to harm another, why it hurt, and more - that I am fully prepared to change my ways. I have learned enough and am convinced enough never to do that thing again.
And if you apologise, I may forgive you because I know it’s the right thing to do. I might say the words but not truly forgive. To forgive in a sincere and deep way means that I understand what made you do what you did and I know that you regret it sincerely. It means that I believe that you fully intend to avoid the same behaviour in the future.
Apology and forgiveness are very deep practices. They are practices that require love - a sincere interest and commitment to the other person’s happiness. Sometimes, despite true apology and forgiveness, there can be no reconciliation. There may be too much danger. Trust may be irreparably damaged. Each person must decide for themselves how much risk there is and how much they are willing to chance in the interest of the relationship.
Most of the time, although it may be very hard, reconciliation is possible. The work to get there may be great for both people involved. The work is loving work. It is peacemaking work. It is hopeful work. Today is a day to forgive - to reconcile - to bring together all that we are. Today is a day to become at one. To become whole.
May it be so.
Bring to mind those you have wronged or harmed in any way - intentional or not - over the past year. In the quiet of your heart, seek their forgiveness. And take the time to seek your own forgiveness as well.
If you find yourself struggling with the weight of your sorrow or stuck with any personal or emotional issue, our Pastoral Care Team is available to help. Please contact me and I’ll arrange to get you support.
Let us go on our way now
Aiming true and adjusting when we miss the mark
Let us go ahead without shame
Let us move forward together
Becoming at one with ourselves and one another
We begin again in love