Monday, September 24, 2007

Sermon: "Adventures in Apologizing" (Delivered 9-23-07)

In my role as minister, one of the things that I find myself regularly having to check myself on is that I don’t advise you to do things that I, myself, am unwilling to do. Two weeks ago I preached a sermon about how we encourage each other to spiritual growth. In delivering that sermon, I had to examine myself and ask of myself, “Do I have a spiritual practice that I adhere to?” Because it would lack integrity to encourage you to do what I myself am unwilling to do.

Every year I preach, at least once, on the subject of generosity. Often these sermons coincide with our annual stewardship drive. But before I ask you to practice generosity as a part of meaningful living, I need to examine my own practice. Last year, I gave over ten percent of my income to tax-deductible, charitable organizations. Over half went to this church. It would lack integrity to stand before you and preach what I do not, myself, practice.

This is not boasting: I am far from perfect, but fortunately being perfect is not what we are expected to be, especially in church. A church is not a place for the already perfect; it is the home of the human. We aim, not for perfection but for authenticity and integrity.

There is an old, slightly tasteless joke that claims that there are three religious truths. The first religious truth is that Jews do not recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah. The second religious truth is that Protestants do not recognize the Pope as the head of the Christian Church. And, the third religious truth is that Methodists do not recognize one another at the liquor store. (This joke is about integrity.)

In the Jewish tradition, there is an extensive collection of texts known as midrash. These texts preserve argumentation, disputation and varying interpretations about the meaning of scriptures, especially as they pertain to how to live out the Jewish laws. At one point in these extensive writings a hypothetical scenario is posed that goes like this: You are a Rabbi and your neighbor is a gentile. Your neighbor breaks his leg and is unable to go to the market. According to Jewish teachings, you are expected to practice the mitzvah, the good deed, of human kindness and compassion, by offering to do your neighbor’s shopping. But, your Christian neighbor gives you a shopping list that includes buying pork chops (or ham or pigs feet or… whatever.) And the authors of the Midrash dispute whether it is acceptable to give the impression of breaking the law in order to do a good deed. One line of thought says that not only should you obey the laws, but you should not even give the impression of violating the laws. Imagine you are the Rabbi, standing there at the deli counter, and up walks a member of your synagogue, one who is particularly prone to gossip, when the butcher simultaneously blurts out, “Here you go, the juiciest pork chops right off the pig.” And you find yourself going on the defensive. “Oh, these are not for me. They are for my neighbor.”

I had an experience like this my first year in Kansas City. I was told that I needed to drive up Metcalf and get a cheesesteak from the Chartroose Caboose. The Caboose has the town’s best cheesesteak. So, I drive up there during my lunch hour one day and the only parking space in the entire lot is right in front of the front door of the adjacent store – a Hooters. And I mean right in front of the door. So, I kind of weigh the options: Do I park my car with its Unitarian bumper sticker and divinity school decal right in front of Hooters or do I drive all the way around back and park in a completely inconvenient place? That’s what I did. I was adverse to even give the impression that I went to Hooters for lunch. This, too, has to do with authenticity and integrity.

But, I’ve really digressed here. This morning I want to talk about apologizing. This is a very basic, and universal religious theme: taking responsibility for one’s actions, expressing contrition, setting things right, atoning for the harm we have caused others, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

Yesterday was the Jewish high holy day of Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Part of the Yom Kippur observance involves settling affairs with all those you have wronged in the previous year. It is a fast day, a serious day, and it also involves confessing wrongs and preemptively seeking forgiveness for the promises we will all inevitably break in the coming year.

Keeping with the theme of Yom Kippur, I had planned to give a sermon about apologizing. In planning this sermon, I remembered my own self-instruction about integrity and authenticity: Do not ask others to do what you yourself are unwilling to do. So, I sat down and made a list of people I felt I owed an apology. Some apologies were for things I had done or said, or not done or not said in the past couple of weeks. Others harkened back as much as a decade. You know, “I still feel bad about that.” And, so I sort of mapped out some adventures in apologizing. I thought, in the spirit of Yom Kippur I would set out to apologize to these people. And I did. But then, when it came time to put fingertips to keyboard, I stalled. What if one of those people to whom I apologized stumbled across this sermon on the web? Would they regard my apology as insincere, as motivated by my desire to come up with something to say to my congregation on Sunday? Would they regard me as trying to profit off my apology by appearing contrite and authentic?

Here is what I can tell you. I had over the past month some adventures in apologizing. I will not tell you to whom I apologized or for what I apologized. I will not tell you whether I was forgiven or whether I even got a response. That is not your business. It is literally between me and other persons, and is unfit for public comment.

Which kind of leaves us stuck. It just isn’t that much of an adventure without a who, a what, a where, or a how. So, there just isn’t that much of a story. Except for just a few general lessons I took away from this experience.

Those lessons are: First, the more you apologize, the better you become at it. Second, you do not control the outcome of an apology. And, third, the vulnerability created by an apology can actually be a constructive force.

First of all, I discovered that the more you apologize, the better you become at it. Apologizing is a bit like a cardiovascular exercise. The more you do it, the easier it becomes and the more capable you find yourself of doing more of it. I found this literally true. And perhaps, it is metaphorically true as well. Open up the heart and you find your heart stretches wider. I noticed becoming quicker to apologize, more aware of the small wrongs I do, as we all do, on a day to day basis. The word “sorry” came more easily to the lips, but not with less sincerity.

Second, I learned that you do not control the outcome of an apology. Apologizing is not like casting a fishing line. It is like sending a message in a bottle out to sea. When I first sat down to plot out my adventures in apologizing, I imagined attaching the apology to the end of a fishing line and casting the apology out there in the hopes of reeling something back. Send out contrite feelings; reel back forgiveness. Send out expressions of regret; reel back a relationship that recommences. But it doesn’t work that way. Apologizing is more like putting a note in a bottle and throwing it out to sea. Once sent, you have absolutely no control about whether it will ever be answered, or how. You control your end, but not the other end.

And finally, I learned that in apology one becomes vulnerable, but this is necessary and can actually be constructive. I want to tell you about the greatest apology I ever received. When I was twenty I had a friend who treated me rather lousy. That is not my interpretation. That is an objective fact. Eight years later I am living here in Kansas City and I receive an email from her out of the blue – after 8 years of no communication whatsoever. The email read: “I will be traveling to the KC area for business and heard from a friend that you were living there. Would you like to have dinner with me?” Then her signature. Then a post-script that read, “I completely understand if you turn down this invitation because I treated you so badly.” Those were not her exact words. Her exact words were unrepeatable in church and very self-deprecating.

When I read the top half of that email, my answer was “No way in Hell.” When I read the post-script, my answer changed to “Sure, why not?” It is actually the vulnerability that is part of an apology that makes it powerful, and potentially constructive.

Since I can’t recount my own adventures in apologizing in as much detail as I might, let me share two other sources of wisdom that expand our thinking about apologizing.

Last Wednesday, Forrest Church was in town to deliver a lecture about his most recent book, which is brilliant and intelligent and has nothing to do with apologizing. I was glad to see about thirty members from our church in attendance. Earlier that day, I was fortunate enough to get to join him for lunch along with two dozen other ministers. He gave us a similar talk, but ended with telling us something he didn’t repeat in his evening speech. He told us that a year ago he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of esophageal cancer and told that most likely he had two to six months to live. Against the odds he beat the cancer.

Talking about his experience with cancer, he said that when he was first diagnosed, his immediate reaction was one of acceptance. (No denial, no anger, no bargaining, no blaming.) Immediate acceptance. He questioned this acceptance though. Perhaps it was ego-deception. Perhaps it was that he had spent thirty years ministering to people who were dying and helping them to accept the end of their own lives and so he could not tolerate having anything but the most peaceful thoughts when it was his turn?

But, upon further reflection, as least as far as I’ve been able to recall, Forrest Church said he was able to approach the diagnosis in the way that he did because he was able to tell the difference between unfinished business and ongoing business. The long, brilliant book he was working on was ongoing business. It didn’t need to be completed before he died. But other things were unfinished business, he could not accept death until the business was finished. We never finish all of our business. We all die in the middle of something. But we can finish those things that need to be done so that we can be at peace.

I would put apologizing, the healing of relationships, the needing to say “I am sorry” or to accept an apology in the unfinished business category. We’ll be restless until we do these things. Forrest Church had very, very little unfinished business and therefore acceptance came easily. We all have ongoing business, because life is ongoing beyond our living. We never complete everything; we just need to finish the things that are unfinished and accept that what is ongoing is ongoing. [Thanks to Vern Barnet and Mitra Rahnema for helping me to recall Church's deeply insightful words.]

I want to end this morning with the words of another Unitarian minister, Robert Walsh. Walsh writes about a man who he knew who had stationery that carried the proverb: “Nothing is settled. Everything matters.”

Walsh goes on to write that this proverb got under his skin, and he vehemently disagreed with it. His protest went like this:

“It’s not true that nothing is settled. In the past year choices have been made, losses suffered. There’s been growth and decay, commitments and betrayals. None of which can be undone… One day this year I was present when someone needed me; another day I was busy doing something else at the moment someone needed me. One day I said something to a friend that injured our relationship; another day I said something kind. The best and worst of those days are written. And nothing, not tears, not joy, not sorrow can erase it.”

Following this rant, Robert Walsh comes to see the proverb in a new light. Perhaps, he thinks, that “even though the past is the past, what is not settled is how the story turns out. As long as we are alive, the story of our life is still being told, and the meaning is still open. What is done is done, but nothing is settled… and if nothing is settled then everything matters: every choice, every act, every word, every deed. They matter in the days ahead and, most of all they matter today.” [from his meditation manual, Noisy Stones, p. 22-23]

We often think of an apology as an ending, a way to put the final period on an unfinished story. An apology ties up the loose strings and closes the open ends. But, this in fact may not be true. Perhaps an apology is just another act in an ongoing story, which although is not final, is still worthwhile.