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We had been good friends, almost best friends. We were part of a small tribe of young people in our late 20s and early 30s living in a small town who were trying to make a difference. One of us owned a health food store, one of us ran an organic restaurant, one of was working for a non-profit repairing poor people’s homes, I ran the solar energy store and my friend, my almost best friend, made hammer dulcimers.
This mighty band of culture warriors would spend every Friday night together, drinking wine, eating good food and laughing. Life was rich and full of hope. My business consumed me. My first wife and I were drifting apart. Until one day, she told me that the marriage was over. Angry words were exchanged. I said things I now regret. And in return she told me that she had been having an affair with the dulcimer maker. My almost best friend. I slammed the door to the house, then slammed the door to my truck (I did a lot of slamming in those years) and drove away. I came back the next day to get my belongings only to find them thrown out on the front lawn in trash bags. Nice touch.
The reality, of course, was that we should have never gotten married in the first place. We were very different people; I was hot tempered, driven, passionate about justice. She was withdrawn, introspective, prone to listening to music in the dark while smoking Pall Malls. We were both very wounded. The betrayal by my first wife was part of our pain that I seemed to be able to accept. But the betrayal of my almost best friend, that was unbearable.
Needless to say, our little circle of friends began to fall apart. I sold the business, we divorced and I moved back East. Others left as well. I never saw my almost best friend the dulcimer maker ever again. Several years later he wrote me to say he had moved to Asheville, NC (the dulcimer capital of the world apparently, we have a daughter who lives there now). He wrote to tell me that he was sorry and that he wanted to make amends for the betrayal. I never responded to him.
Finding the courage to ask for forgiveness is, I now realize, just part of the equation of atonement. Making amends or, in this case, accepting the amends offered is in some ways much harder, much darker. It requires a level of courage that is not easily found. I don’t need to tell any of you here do I?
This week marks the Jewish High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. The opportunity to ask for forgiveness of those we have wronged and, if possible, to offer amends. Yom Kippur is my favorite Jewish Holiday…maybe my favorite holiday of all. From sundown Tuesday to sundown Wednesday of this week, observant Jews will fast, and ask God for the strength to make amends to those they have wronged. And for those who have been wronged to accept that offer. Then at Sundown on Wednesday the fast will be broken with worship and a meal, and the New Year can truly begin. UUs don’t have anything like this. We are not big on sacrifice, not big on fasting unless its part of lemon water cleanse. But I think it would be good if we did have something like this. We will have a little ritual to present in a moment but for now let’s talk about amends.
Making amends is about actualizing our offer of forgiveness. In the Catholic Church asking for forgiveness is always coupled with an act to make amends, either to God for the hurt you have caused his creation, or directly to the person. The formal order of this is confession, contrition, repentance. Repentance is the doing of contrition, the attempt to make what is wrong into a right; to make amends.
In Twelve step programs this fits into step 8 and 9:
Step 8: Make a list of all persons we have harmed, and become willing to make amends to them all.
Step 9: Make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
It seems simple enough. But for anyone who has tried to do this, it’s not. I have stood in front of the door of someone I hurt deeply and I remember how hard it was to actually knock. The agony of raising my hand to the door took more courage then I thought I possessed.
Former First Lady Betty Ford, who overcame substance abuse and founded a foundation dedicated to this work wrote:
“On the surface, making amends might sound as simple as offering a sincere apology for your treatment of others, but there’s more to this cornerstone Twelve Step practice…a direct amend refers to the act of personally addressing issues with people who have been harmed by our behavior…Whenever possible, a direct amend is made face-to-face rather than over the phone or by asking someone else to apologize on your behalf…in recovery, apologies are basically (just) words. When you make amends, you acknowledge and align your values to your actions by admitting wrongdoing and then living by your principles.” (https://www.hazeldenbettyford.org/articles/making-amends-addiction-recovery)
In the Hebrew Bible Jacob and his twin brother Esau are born to Isaac and Rachel. Esau was the first to be born, strong with a full head of hair, Jacob follows grasping Esau’s heel, smooth and cunning. The name Jacob means tripper upper. Isaac favors Esau who is strong and hardworking, Rachel favors Jacob who is small and clever. Perhaps Isaac favors Esau because he is the first born or perhaps it’s because Esau is everything Isaac is not. Isaac was never bright and brave; perhaps having been traumatized when his father Abraham who had been willing to sacrifice Isaac to God as a boy only to have been spared by an angel of God at the last minute. I would guess that kind of trauma would mess you up. For these reasons and more, Isaac loves his older son who seems to be only good at hunting and grunting.
Rachel sees in Jacob her own power; to obtain her will by charm and guile. One day, as Jacob is in the kitchen stirring lentil stew, his brother Esau comes in from the hunt famished. Demanding something good to eat from Jacob, Jacob offers him some stew. “But what will you give me in return?” asks Jacob, “I don’t care” says Esau “what do you want?” Jacob pounces “Give me your inheritance” the majority of his father’s estate due to Esau as the first born. “Yes” says Esau, “yes, you may have it, anything for the stew”. And with that Jacob has, by rights, all of the inheritance of the first born. Days later as Isaac lies dying, Rachel dresses Jacob in goat fur, and bringing him to Isaac who is now blind, says, “here is your son Esau, give him your blessing so that he may inherit his due.” And with that Jacob steals his brother’s inheritance. With flocks and wealth in hand Jacob flees his family to escape the wrath of his brother.
Jacob travels to Syria across the river Jordan and asks his uncle Laban for Rachel as his bride, the younger of two sisters. Laban agrees to offer his daughter to Jacob but only after he works for Laban without pay for seven years. At the end of seven years, Jacob asks for Rachel but Laban gives Jacob his oldest daughter Leah in her stead saying “I don’t know how it is from where you come from, but here the eldest child is first”. Laban tells Jacob he must work for another seven years to be given Rachel. No one of course, asks the women what they want. So, Jacob has now been tricked by his uncle much as he tricked his brother and father. What goes around comes around.
Finally, with now two wives, many animals and servants Jacob realizes that he must make amends with his brother, and decides to return home. Coming to the river Jordan, Jacob, now worried about how his brother will treat him after his betrayal those many years ago, send his family, and herds across the river, and instructs his wives to offer Esau gifts and to tell him, that he is returning home.
That night as Jacob sleeps alone on the banks of the Jordan, he is visited by a being who attacks him and wrestles him to the ground. They fight for hours; the other just exactly as strong as Jacob. Towards dawn, both of them exhausted, Jacob asks “Who are you? What is your name?” and with that the other pulls Jacobs leg out of joint, an injury he will carry for the rest of his life and answers him, “From now on, you will no longer be known as Jacob, but as Israel, he who strives with God and prevails.”
Commentators have been puzzling over this part of the story for years. Some have called the strange being an angel, others have said it was God. I concur with Rabbi Harold Kushner that this was Jacob’s own conscience wrestling with him; equally matched, the other only leaves after Jacob carries a limp, an outward injury to the interior wrong he carries within his soul for having betrayed his brother.
The next day Jacob crosses the Jordan and walks towards his ancestral home. In the distance he can see a large party coming towards him. He sees his wives, his servants, and, at the head of it all is Esau, now running towards him. At first Jacob is afraid, wondering if his brother is running to attack him but then he sees his brother is smiling. Esau runs into Jacob’s arms and laughs, “You are home! Welcome!” and as they embrace Jacob whispers “I am so sorry I stole from you. Can you forgive me?” “Of course, I can” whispers Esau. “Of course, I can” (adapted from Genesis 22-32).
There are so many ways to look at this. I want you this week to ponder what this story means to you and your life. If you would like to write me, I welcome hearing from you. Betrayal is so stinging. It takes courage to give amends and courage to receive amends. And we are not always able to accept that forgiveness, are we? Can you hear me? Sometimes the hurt just is too great to forgive, much less forget.
But I am asking you to consider this, in the light of Yom Kippur, might it be possible? If you have wronged someone might you begin to offer apologies and step towards amends. And if you have been hurt, might you be able to forgive even if you cannot forget what hurts? Might we step into the light of love with courage?
In a few minutes, I will ask you to come forward if you feel comfortable doing so and light a candle to offer silent amends or offer silent forgiveness. To light a small light in your heart that perhaps will lighten your load of either of guilt or hurt.
Lacking forgiveness hurts our souls. It keeps us from being human. It makes any of us feel like we don’t matter. There is no magic pill for forgiveness. I like to believe that despite Esau’s warm embrace there was still much that Jacob needed to do to make amends for his betrayal. Many hours of talking, tears shed and resentments slowly worn down. I like to believe that Esau’s forgiveness was not so easy; that he too struggled with his better angels to forgive Jacob.
I know those who have been abused who haven’t forgiven their abusers. But consider this: How much power do you still ascribe to your abusers by not forgiving them? When I ask someone to forgive another I am not saying we should forget what they did but I am saying that forgiveness frees us to get on with our lives.
I never saw my almost friend the dulcimer maker ever again. I am not sure I even remembered his name. Once when visiting my daughter in Asheville, I searched him out on line. It took a while but I found him. Bill was his name. He had just died. I drove by where he lived. I did not go in. Although I rejected what could have been his amends, I did forgive him. I let go of the weight on my heart, now healed after decades, and with so many other hurts given and received. I let go, and while I will always walk with that wound, I am better served, we are better served by finding the courage to make amends and move on. Its not easy but it is necessary. As the author and therapist Sharon Alder puts it “Sometimes you only get one chance to rewrite the qualities of the character you played in a person’s life story. Always take it. Never let the world read the wrong version of you.”
So may it be. Amen.