Sermon – The Morning After – Gretchen
Last Sunday, I told you about the ledge at my friends’ lake cabin. How I was too afraid to ever follow them when they’d jump off into the water below. Well, I wasn’t always so cautious. Actually, a lot of the time, just the opposite.
For example. I was in about 5th grade at summer camp when I was a little late for the evening campfire circle (I’d been getting something from my cabin and missed the call to line up, but I didn’t want to miss all the fun singing that happened at the beginning.)
My cabin was at the top of a big hill. The campfire was at the very bottom. There was a trail to get down. It zigged and zagged to keep the incline a little more manageable, but also made it really long. Suddenly I remembered that some of the older kids often took a less-official trail that cut off the switch backs – instead of a mild incline, it was a steep one, but they all seemed to do fine with it – and they’d arrive in half the time, laughing as they ran out at the the bottom of the trail – right next to the campfire. Perfect.
So I made my way down the regular trail until I came to the cut off and then because I was in a really big hurry, I started running down it. But because I was running and the down hill was steep – I picked up too much speed – And unlike those bigger kids, my legs were pretty short. And more easily caught up under my little body. So instead of arriving by the campfire circle laughing, I arrived flat on my belly, with my legs – from my ankles to my knees covered in blood.
Obviously I did not make the campfire singing that evening.
Instead I had to walk back up the regular long trail, all the way to the top, in terrible pain, so that I could be cleaned up at the nurse’s station.
I still have scars.
Sometimes when we talk about plunging into the unknown, making that brave and bold leap, and saying yes to the transformative moment for which you can never fully prepare, we forget to talk about what happens after the leap.
We forget to talk about the broken skin, the broken hearts, the broken vows, or the broken relationships.
The proverbial morning after.
Not every fear, it turns out, is unfounded. Even if the intention is good and the leap righteous, there is still always the possibility that something – if not everything – could go terribly wrong, or that there might be significant and unforeseen collateral damage.
In a traditional religious setting we would call this the reality of sin. Which is a word and concept that comes for many with all sorts of feelings of guilt, or shame, left over from other religious traditions, or from cultural influence by fundamentalists overly fixated on enforcing their views of ethical sexuality.
This personal or social baggage obscures the original intent of the word, especially from a Jewish perspective. Which was mostly just the idea of missing the mark.
Depending on the circumstances, missing the mark can be no big deal, or a really big deal. Are we talking about a bunch of friends playing darts and hitting the wall instead of the board? Or ar we talking about a heart surgeon making a slightly-off incision?
Both are missing the mark. The specific circumstances, however, make a big difference.
Coming to grips with the circumstances of our mark-missing – facing them fully, and taking responsibility both for their reality, and their impact, is the work of Teshuvah –the days of repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur that Victoria Safford describes in the reading Ali and I offered.
Rosh Hashanah – the Jewish New Year is an opening, an invitation; Yom Kippur – the day of atonement is the healing.
Teshuvah is the bridge between the two.
These two Holy Days represent the bulk of what we usually talk about when it comes to forgiveness and the restoration of relationships. When someone asks to be forgiven, we offer forgiveness. It is our practice, our promise. There is nothing you could do that would place you beyond the reach of courageous, transforming love. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times, come, yet again come.
The invitation, and then healing, the return.
On the other hand, the middle journey of Teshuvah, between the two – which has as its root, the word “shuv,” or “turn” has often been treated as if a given, something automatic and obvious, as if too much attention to the work of repair might indicate a lack of compassion, as if all apologies are equal. As if a small hole in the wall is the same as a small hole in the heart.
It was not quite a year ago – towards the end of last October – when the news broke about the comedian Louis CK and his pattern of appalling behavior with women.
It was that time where it felt like every day there was one, or sometimes two, powerful influential men, men that we admire or respect, the “good guys” – that we found out had been for years engaging in inappropriate, manipulative, misogynist and/or abusive behavior.
Louis CK probably fit into all of these.
As the stories came out, he issued an apology, which at the time I thought of as pretty remarkable. Primarily because he started by saying flat out, “These stories are true.”
It’s a low bar, really, but after a bunch of men’s first response was to deny and attempt to discredit and demean the women who were coming forward – it felt revolutionary that he didn’t go there. Not only did he acknowledge they were telling the truth, he affirmed their experience, and took responsibility:
From his apology:
“I wielded [my] power irresponsibly. I took advantage of the fact that I was widely admired in my and their community, which disabled them from sharing their story and brought hardship to them when they tried because people who look up to me didn’t want to hear it…There is nothing about this that I forgive myself for. And I have to reconcile it with who I am. Which is nothing compared to the task I left them with. I can hardly wrap my head around the scope of hurt I brought on them. I have spent my long and lucky career talking and saying anything I want. I will now step back and take a long time to listen.”
And then, he did. He stepped back. He stepped away from multiple tv shows, and a movie, and from comedy more generally. Or rather, all of these stepped away from him.
As reported by NPR, “He was dropped by his management company. FX, HBO, Netflix all severed ties with him. He pretty much disappeared.”
That is, until three weeks ago, when he showed up for a stand-up spot in a New York City club, indicating that perhaps 10 months was a long-enough time to “listen.”
The reaction was mixed, with some focused on the price he had paid already, and others wondering if he had yet listened well enough, or grappled fully with his actions….
After all, his “apology statement” never actually said the words “I’m sorry,” and now here he was just slipping back on to a comedy stage with no mention, no acknowledgment, no words uttered for the journey he had been on, “I’m Sorry” or otherwise, and really, no evidence on that stage that anything had changed, no evidence that he had traveled that intervening journey of Teshuvah, a journey that always begins with a turning inward, a commitment to see what is there, to begin the change there, in the heart.
This is what we can call the “first R of Teshuvah”: Recognition. Before we can even think about returning, or restoring – we must recognize ourselves not just as we wish we were, but how we actually are. Not just our intentions, but also our impact. To see our complex motivations, those places we keep hidden from ourselves and others; the ego, the anger, the grief, the fear – often compounded over many years – all of these things that brought us to miss the mark, to keep missing the mark.
And we must recognize the pain we are responsible for –the brokenness – to know that this too is a part of us and our story – and to set this alongside the other reality which is our wholeness.
Our culture today does not do a lot to help us in this work of recognizing our own wrongdoing. Instead it teaches us to shift blame, and save face, cultivating practices of defensiveness and passive voice acknowledgements. As in, not “I missed the mark” but “the mark was missed.”
Rabbi Alan Taylor describes it this way: “We live in a culture that conditions us to avoid suffering [our own, or others]. We are not in the habit of looking at it, but of distracting ourselves from it. As we begin the process of Teshuvah, we need to make a conscious effort to overcome the momentum of this denial and avoidance.”
Instead of shifting blame, Teshuvah invites us to acknowledge our responsibility, especially by hearing directly from those we hurt directly, or indirectly – individuals, and communities. We attempt to see things from their perspective, to enter their world, if even a little.
And then, we work to accept that these costs, these injuries were in fact the result of our actions. Regardless of our intent. Regardless of other factors that may have been at play. Our job is to simply recognize, and accept.
Which is why the next R of Teshuvah is often remorse. The inner conflict that comes with this real acceptance can be overwhelming. Remorse is one step further than simple regret, which you can feel pretty readily for all sorts of things that you simply wish went differently. Remorse connects us in a deep understanding of the ways our actions led to another’s pain, and it contains the seeds of real change.
As Rabbi David Blumenthal describes, Remorse “encompass[es] feelings of being lost or trapped, of anguish, and perhaps of despair, as well as being alienated from our own deepest spiritual roots, of having abandoned our own inner selves.”
Genuine remorse is often motivating by way of its misery. We don’t want to know this alienation from ourselves and others in this same way ever again. And so we resolve to refrain from repeating the same action again in the future.
That’s the third r of Teshuvah – refrain. To simply not pick back up this same path, to commit to the turning, the change – for real.
Because changing habits is never easy, or readily accomplished in a 10 day period marked by an ancient tradition – but rather require daily commitment over the long haul, this is probably a good moment to remind us that this whole path is best traveled with help.
To find what the Jewish tradition might call a minyan – that is not like the little yellow movie character that your children or grandchildren like to dress up as for Halloween – but rather a group of friends and fellow imperfect people who will pray and struggle and grow with you.
We call this same thing our covenanted community, that is, our congregation – people who promise to practice together new habits of the heart.
Refraining from repeating the same action fits nicely along the other major move of Teshuvah, which attempts to heal the actual damage done, as in – restitution.
Repay the money. Rebuild the reputation. Tell the truth.
It is not always possible to make things as they were before the break, but as one Jewish teaching acknowledges, “the work of repair has its own intrinsic purposes, regardless of whether or not the repair can ever be accomplished. It is the effort, and the resulting change of heart, that matters.”
Which brings us back to Louis CK, and the words he said, and the ones he didn’t, and his attempt to return.
Because the last r of Teshuvah is Revelation – as in, an out-loud acknowledgment of all the other pieces – out loud recognition, out loud remorse, out loud resolve to refrain, and out loud attempt at restitution.
Everything I have read and learned about this process points to the necessity of the verbal acknowledgement, which moves the internal and the hidden to something external and therefore accountable.
As the medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar Maimonides wrote, “We need to make this confession with our lips moving; to say these things out loud that we have resolved in our heart.”
Nothing indicates that an email or text acknowledgment is enough, by the way.
Depending on the situation of the mark being missed, the out-loud might be offered to one, or to many, to God, or the universe. With candles and ritual, or over a table in a coffee shop with hearts pounding and palms sweating.
However it comes, it must acknowledge and integrate all the parts of Teshuvah. Otherwise it remains provisional, partial, and probably inadequate for real return and restoration.
In this age of shifting blame and saving face, where apologies are considered amazing just for acknowledging that a thing that happened happened. Where it can feel like so much work to go back up the hill and get stitched up. I have been wondering lately what it would mean for us to take up this practice in every part of our lives – our families, our friendships, our church, our city, our country.
To imagine that we are capable, and we are worthy of moments just like the poem from Sharon Olds. Moments where someone we love who has also hurt us, maybe for a long, long time. To imagine they are capable and we are worthy of them coming to us in real recognition, with real remorse, with a commitment to refrain, and a plan for restitution -saying, I am so sorry. And there in a flash, the sky splinters, and everything changes.
So much so we wonder what we will do with the rest of our lives.
We know there are many reasons to forgive even if this work never happen. We have to make do with inadequate apologies all the time. And we are always free – as Lily Tomlin defines forgiveness – to stop wishing for a different or better past.
It can be so liberating to just – let go.
But imagine – if we traveled this path more intentionally more fully this path of turning, and turning, and turning again and then from this place, we offer forgiveness: To say: It’s all right. And to mean it. Because the apology is so real, the forgiveness is too.
And so is the healing, and the wholeness, and the being made new.
Forgiveness offered from this place is not just liberating, it’s transforming. And it’s a practice we can and should ask of one another, and ourselves. Not because we are not compassionate, but because we believe so fully in our equal inherent worth, and our interdependence that we are willing to take seriously our own part in this web and take seriously the work needed for repair, the work that comes before atonement, which is better pronounced at-one-ment. The work to first acknowledge all the cracks across all of our lives, that we have ourselves made, and then together, letting the light shine through.