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Confession and Forgiveness

Updated: Jul 9, 2023

To My Forgiving Mother by Wendall Berry

I was your rebellious child,

do you remember? Sometimes

I wonder if you do remember,

so complete has your forgiveness been.

So complete has your forgiveness been

I wonder sometimes if it did not

precede my wrong, and I erred,

safe found, within your love,

prepared ahead of me, the way home,

or my bed at night, so that almost

I should forgive you, who perhaps

foresaw the worst that I might do,

and forgave before I could act,

causing me to smile now, looking back,

to see how paltry was my worst,

compared to your forgiveness of it

already given. And this, then,

is the vision of that Heaven of which

we have heard, where those who love

each other have forgiven each other,

where, for that, the leaves are green,

the light a music in the air,

and all is unentangled,

and all is undismayed.

The Confession by Giuseppe Molteni (1838)

This spring, for the first time, been participating in the #UULent photo a day social media challenge. Having been started a number of years ago, essentially there is a calendar that gives a word for each day of Lent, and people are encouraged to share a photo and a short reflection on their social media accounts for each word. This has been an incredible exercise for me and I have enjoyed it immensely, but there was one word that caught me that I almost skipped because I struggled so much as to what to say about it.

The Word was humility.

Now, humility is not something that I normally associate with Unitarian Universalism. For a faith tradition that leaves so much room for mystery, plurality and self-reflection, we are an exceptionally opinionated and self-assured bunch aren't we? This self-assurance is great. I love a group of people that know what they think and what they believe, but it also doesn’t set us up well for genuine conversation, and it certainly doesn’t set us up for admitting we are wrong, and apologizing and readjusting when we need to do so.

In fact, it strikes me as interesting that for a religious gathering that emphasizes social justice the way we do, we are one of the only groups that does not have confession and apology written into their weekly services. In Islam, a common prayer is is taken from the Hadiths or saying from the prophet Mohammad, which says:

O Allah! I ask You, O Allah, You are the One, the Only, Self Sufficient Master, who was not begotten and begets not and none is equal to You. Forgive me my sins, surely you are Forgiving, Merciful.

In Buddhism, one might hear this prayer, which it interesting to reflect upon because unlike Islam, Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition so there is not a God to which they are repenting. Rather, this prayer is a repentance to the self, in the presence of all higher beings. The prayer says this:

I now completely purify these karmas, and before the assemblies of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, throughout the Dharma Realm in lands as many as fine motes of dust, I sincerely repent and reform my offenses and vow never to create them again. I will always dwell in all merit and virtue of the pure precepts.

And as a final example, Catholic churches, their congregants all together say this as the Mass begins:

I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned, in my thoughts and in my words, in what I have done and in what I have failed to do, through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault; therefore I ask blessed Mary ever-Virgin, all the Angels and Saints, and you, my brothers and sisters, to pray for me to the Lord our God.

While stated in all sorts of different ways, the general theme is the same. Sometimes, we make mistakes, and those mistakes can have real world consequences. We, intentionally and unintentionally, can hurt ourselves, others, our communities and the natural world and when we refuse to acknowledge that hurt we create, the hurt gets bigger and more painful. Families can get ripped apart, churches split, civil wars break out, all because we find ourselves unable to apologize and seek forgiveness for what we have done.

In his book Speak Peace Into a World of Conflict, Marshall Rosenburg the creator of a mediation style called “Non-Violent Communication,” which you may have heard of or been trained in if you worked in the corporate world, takes this idea a step further, stating that apologies, while somewhat useful are still part of a language of violence and shame that he believes we should move beyond. He says on page 73 of his book that quote:

Nonviolent Communication shows us a difference between what I would call mourning, and an apology, An apology is basically still a part of our violent language. It implies a wrongness, that you should be blamed, that you should be penitent, that you are a terrible person for what you did, and when you agree you are a horrible person and when you have become sufficiently penitent, you can be forgiven… In contrast, what [I believe] is really healing for people is not that game where we agree that we are terrible, but rather going inside yourself and seeing what need of yours was not met, you then feel a natural suffering that leads to learning and healing.

Now, put bluntly, I think that at times, sociologists like Rosenburg downplay the human propensity to harm and whitewash our ability to hate and do damage, but I think his point is valid. The value of an apology is not so that you feel bad. You feeling bad is not helpful. Externalized guilt is just really, an emotional manipulation and once the feeling passes, actual changes are almost never made. It is not guilt or feelings of guilt that are important, it is that healing in a relationship can take place when we can be honest with ourselves and each other and peace both externally and internally can be found.

At their best, confessions and apologies are avenues by which we acknowledge we have damaged a relationship, and that the relationship that is broken is worth healing and working on. When we adopt an attitude of wanting to heal our relationships and bring peace to ourselves and each other, sensitivity to harm that we may cause is a natural result.

There are so many applicable places in our lives for this conversation. Whether it be romantic relationships, familial connections, workplace dynamics, or even our relationships with our own selves. How often are we hardest on our own inner person and perhaps need to forgive ourselves for our past mistakes and accept that we were growing and changing.

Without regular practice however it might be hard for us to have the words to say so, here is what we are going to do. If you can find someone to do this with that would be amazing, but if you are alone, consider sitting in front of a mirror and making eye contact with yourself or the other person if you have someone to work with and practice these phrases.

If I have hurt you, I am sorry.

If I have offended you, I am sorry.

If I have damaged our relationship in some way, I am sorry.

I want to be a person of healing.

I want this to be a place of healing.

I am sorry.

I forgive you.

May you be well.

Friends, may we be people who see the power of our words and our actions both for good and for ill. May we strive to be people who bring peace, and when we cause harm, may we have the courage to own up to our mistake and apologize for it. May we be people who forgive and seek forgiveness and may this place be a place of healing so that we and our world can be healed together.

Blessed Be, Amen

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