I walked into the room and saw a teddy bear. And then, I saw, lying on the bed, a young man with blue eyes, sandy brown curls, and freckles. As our eyes met, a smile broadened across his face. He told me his name is Josh. I introduced myself as Alan, the chaplain. For this was in San Francisco General Hospital, where I served as a chaplain on the AIDS and Oncology floor. Josh told me that he was awaiting a spinal cord operation to relieve him from headaches. He welcomed my company. We joked and quickly we developed a warm rapport. He told me that his headaches are due to the onset of AIDS. He then said that his three best friends had recently died of AIDS. We talked about issues of rootedness, love, and loss. He said, pointing out the window, “See those hills? At night, I look watch the lights of cars weave down the same road that me and my friends traveled hundreds of times before.” He said that now that he’s lost his best friends, he’s scared of getting close to anyone. At the end of our conversation, I asked him if he’d like to pray. He said, “No not now, but pray for me this evening.” “What do you want me to pray for?” He said, “Pray for all the lost souls—and think of me.”
Pray for all the lost souls. I can’t do that at times without thinking of myself.
Being lost is a state of the soul. It is a natural part of the human journey to lose our way. “Midway into life’s journey,” Dante begins the Divine Comedy, “I found myself within a shadowed forest, for I had lost the path that does not stray.”
I am your transitional minister.
So many of you have extended me a warm welcome and expressed deep gratitude that I am here accompanying you during this time of change and transition, a time of change and transition made even more poignant with Nate’s announcement.
Last Sunday, a number of you expressed not only gratitude but also hope, hope that I will “work my magic” and solve the challenges that are here, and fix what is broken among you. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but I will do none of that.
As I mentioned last week, my task among you is to hold the space for you for you to do this work, this sacred work of sharing with one another what is truly important to you.
The work of healing is not something I can do for you. I can only hold the space and invite you to hold the space for one another to enter into the process of sharing honestly, letting go of the hurts you carry, and rebuilding trust.
Although it’s only my second time in this pulpit, I’ve met many of you online and now have had twenty days with you in person. I haven’t heard the word forgiveness uttered much at all. I’ve heard another f-word invoked far more often. Really I’m not offended by this other f-word. It’s how a number of you process and express yourself. It’s part of the culture. But my point is that now is the time to talk about and practice forgiveness.
There is no better time to begin a ministry with a congregation than with the Jewish High Holy Days. It’s all about forgiveness and even scarier words like atonement and repentance. It is serendipitous that two Sundays this year fall during the Jewish High Holy Days. According to Jewish tradition, it is time, it is time to lay our burdens down, our burdens of resentment, of bitterness, of festering anger and remorse.
I know these themes are hard for a lot of religious liberals and spiritual progressives, but stay with me. Don’t simply shut down because I say that f word forgiveness. The act of forgiveness implicitly implies condemnation of some kind of wrongdoing and the invitation of reconciliation. I have long been surprised by how difficult it is for so many people, including myself, to acknowledge shortcomings, to confess where we have fallen short of our ideals and slighted others, and to forgive others who have slighted us. It’s as if admitting to a need for forgiveness would make us less than human, less than perfect, less than the ideals we so strive to live up to.
Our lives are not motion pictures in which we can, like a discerning editor, run a bad scene backward, cut it out, and keep replacing it with better ones until we are pleased with the result and are ready to show it to a critical audience. But that is precisely what our culture urges us to do, and our self-adoring egos too often persuade us that the best way to deal with our moments of poor behavior is to simply forget them, to cover them over, to live as if they never happened.
There’s two reasons I want to explore the nature of forgiveness. First it’s the day after Rosh Hashanah.. and there is no other spiritual holiday that I’m familiar with that has so much spiritual significance. For the Jewish High Holidays don’t celebrate a person, an event, a season, or even a story. The Jewish High Holidays celebrate the human capacity to change, to grow, to heal. They call people into the space of turning toward reconciliation and wholeness.
The second reason I want to explore the nature of forgiveness is that so many of you have told me that this community is in need of some healing. Too many of you are feeling discouraged about how certain conflicts seem to fester and don’t go away.
I so appreciate one definition of forgiveness: forgiveness is the ability to let go of the possibility of a better yesterday. And to let go of the possibility of a better yesterday means we have to grieve our past if we want to let it go.
I’ve heard so many times people sharing how difficult it is to deal with conflict, that it makes them uncomfortable. It is natural to try to avoid it. Some of you get angry or competitive when conflict arises and you unintentionally push people away, shutting . My own default is to try to accommodate in every conflict, which brings people along but often means I don’t own my what I see is going on and how I am feeling. Maybe you’re like me and you let the fear of conflict lead you to allow others to get their way but you don’t say, you don’t own, what you’re seeing and feeling.
One of the great strengths of this congregation are the people, so much insight and wisdom are among you. UU Westport is a tremendous learning community, when everyone’s hearts are open. I’m learning from so many of you.
Linda Lubin shared with me a better term for conflict resolution as conflict transformation.
David Caplan made the observation that for all the talk of affirming diversity here, where is the affirmation of having a diversity of opinions?
And speaking of David Caplan, he’s the new head coordinator of Voices Cafe. I’m grateful for all of his work to bring music and social justice together. I look forward to attending their first show on September 30. I look forward to seeing many of you there!
Two different Eileens in a gathering yesterday noted the importance of curiosity, one of them giving me the great phrase, lets be curious, not furious.
Yesterday in a different gathering, Randy Burnham pointed out that Rosh Hashanah isn’t just about Celebrating the human capacity to change and grow, it celebrates the human capacity to change, grow, and heal.
Yes, healing is possible. If a critical mass of you engage this important work of holding one another in covenant. This morning the Committee on Ministry shared the Covenant of Right Relations. When someone behaves badly and strains or breaks the bonds of relationship here, the job of the leaders and the members here is to request that they come back into covenant.
Way to often people talk about others rather than to others. It is a good rule of thumb never to say something about someone else that you have already shared to the person you’re talking about. It’s really unhealthy and demonstrates how you have lost the path that does not stray, do it too much and you will become a lost soul.
I would hope that all current members here re-affirm the Covenant of Right Relations. That is the ground, the foundation, for how we all agree to behave with one another. Right? To elaborate, that means we refrain from sending emails to a group of people about someone we are unhappy with and instead communicate directly with the person that is causing us concern. And I recommend using the phone rather than email. Speaking of email, I encourage you to refrain from putting any emotionally charged content—it’s a terrible means to engage conflict. The same thing goes for social media. It amazes me how so much of our culture encourages us to lose the path does not stray, to become unmoored from our anchor, and to find ourselves lost.
As I said earlier, it is a natural part of the human journey to lose one’s way, and it is a natural part of a congregation’s journey to face challenging conflicts and then to learn how to engage conflict creatively. In time we’ll talk about conflict transformation. We’ll talk about the importance of being curious, not furious. But today I want to share with you some good news:
You have all the seeds among you to change, grow, and heal. You have all the ingredients to thrive as a congregation.
Being human means being imperfect, sometimes making mistakes, even big mistakes that really hurt other people, often unintentionally. Being human means we sometimes fail
There’s a lovely book by Brene Brown entitled Gifts of Imperfection. She says,
“Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal, we often try to acquire it by fitting in and by seeking approval, which are not only hollow substitutes for belonging, but often barriers to it. Because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
This month the theme is Welcome—and I’m reminded what a former member of my previous congregation once shared with me, “Belonging makes me think that the ugly parts of me are ok.”
In order for your community to become that place of healing, liberation and growth, we need to stay with our communities. We need to stay past our initial disillusion, past our irritations and past our hurt. We stay not by ignoring these things but by facing them, calling one another into healthy relationship, calling one another into covenant, and we do so knowing that we too make mistakes, we too fall out of covenant at times and need to be called back in.
When we gather with the faith that there is a love holding us, all of us, then it means you can belong and be loved whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey. But there’s something about belonging that requires us to show up as we are and to make ourselves vulnerable—and the question is whether our community shall really welcome us. In every human community there are always words that wound, self-promoting attitudes, individuals that grate on you, situations where susceptibilities and values clash. This is why community requires effort and an acceptance that comes from frequent and mutual forgiveness.
It requires us to hold one another tenderly, even when we see the world differently and disagree profoundly about how best to respond to the crises of our day. To do so requires enough of us to be open, vulnerable, and willing to recognize where we hold our own pain and fear. Often we don’t know what to do with our own weakness except hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist. So how can we welcome fully the weakness of another if we haven’t welcomed our own weakness?
Let me close with going back to the story about Josh at San Francisco. When Josh had recuperated from his operation and was getting ready to leave the hospital, he could hear a 10 year old boy crying about his uncle was dying. Josh came out of his room and saw the boy just outside. Josh said to him, “I have something for you,” and he came out of his room with his teddy bear. He gave it to the boy and held him, telling him that his uncle’s love is going to stay with him.
Josh went home with a lot more than relief from headaches. He left with the opportunity to connect with another human being who was suffering.
May this week be full of reflection on where each of us can turn towards others for the sake of recognizing where we have been imperfect, where we want to do better, and who we want to reach out to for the sake of a repaired relationship.
Blessed be. Amen.