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Sermon Series on Brian McClaren’s book Naked Spirituality
Preached:  February 17, 2013

The spiritual practice as we move into the next season of Spiritual Strengthening in Brian McClaren’s book, Naked Spirituality is Sorry: The Practice of Self-examination and confession.  Finding strength through failure and experiencing regret.  Since it is the first Sunday of Lent, the word sorry fits right in.

One of my new favorite shows is on PBS – Downton Abbey.  Any fans out there?  Although I am not happy that Downton writers have killed off two of my favorite characters.  The characters may not be real, and yet I actually experienced grief!

In one episode Lord Grantham is having a conversation with his mother:

Lord Grantham:
I will do it on one condition. You will admit it when you realize you were wrong.
Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham:
Oh, well, that is an easy caveat to accept, because I’m never wrong.
Would you rather be right or would you rather be happy?   (pause…)

Obviously, “happy” and “right” are not necessarily mutually exclusive. But when it’s one or the other, the victory of “right” at the expense of “happiness” comes up a bit hollow, doesn’t it?  Or better put, would you rather be right or be in right relationship?  I could preach whole sermons on the need to be right.  It’s one of Seven Deadly Needs and one of the things that blocks us from deepening in our relationship with God.

There is that myth from Love Story filmed back in 1971. Do you know the quote?
Love means never having to say you’re sorry.

We all know that’s BS and can damage relationships very quickly.  But really, how many people place apologizing on your top 10 list of things you like to do?  Can you remember back to when your parents forced apologies out of you when you were a child?

 What happens when we say we’re sorry before we mean we’re sorry?
What about the people who apologize too much?
How does the hurt person know the apologize is sincere?
Is there a person in your life who has difficulty admitting when he or she is wrong?
Do you know anyone who has a hard time saying “I’m sorry?”        Or perhaps that’s you.

 Story: Two brothers were playing. Somehow, one hit the other with a stick, and tears and bitter words followed.  Accusations and blame were still being exchanged as their mother came into the room.  She said, “Now boys, what would happen if either of you died tonight and you never had the opportunity again to say I’m sorry and to forgive one another?” One of the boys spoke up, “Well, OK, I’ll say I’m sorry and I’ll forgive him tonight, but if we’re both alive in the morning, he’d better look out.”

I can tell you from personal experience that forcing apologies are not necessarily the best route to go. The words “I’m sorry” are some of the most powerful words in our vocabulary. Too often though, it can mean so little if it’s just in passing or forced or insincere.  It cheapens the integrity of the apology.

Some people say that the words I’m sorry are the hardest words.  That’s only true if the apology comes from a deep place in the heart, feeling sadness, remorse, regret.  The words are actually fairly easy to say, and we tend to toss them around far too easily.  Think for a moment about the last time you said I’m sorry or you heard another person say those words. Don’t we use the word sorry in such a nonchalant way: “Sorry about that.” And then the equally nonchalant reply: “Don’t worry about it” or “no problem.”

Even for the more serious transgressions, a public “I’m sorry” seems to work.  Think about politicians.  Are people really sincerely sorry, or just sorry they got caught and have to come clean in order to save their reputation or their public office.  DNA testing has been used to determine that some prisoners have mistakenly served time for a crime they did not commit. They lose years of their life behind bars and all they get is  “Uh, we’re sorry.” What does it really mean to be sorry?

A rabbi talks about explaining Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement to 5-year-olds: This is the one day out of the year that you think about all the bad things you have done to other people and you simply say to them “I’m sorry.”  Then they will forgive you. It’s that easy. One day. One word.  But, of course, it’s not that easy or simple, is it?

There is a long-standing tradition of repentance in Judaism. Jewish people built into their annual calendar holy days of repentance (Yom Kippur – Day of Atonement) when the community of faith would pause to examine themselves, acknowledge their faults, individually and as a community, and come clean.  When exiles in Babylon went back to Jerusalem, the priest Ezra kew that that you can repair walls externally, but people need to be healed internally.  The internal structures of character and identity needed to be rebuilt just as much as the physical infrastructure.

So as the city was physically restored, Ezra gathered the people for our first three spiritual practices of invocation, thanksgiving and worship; and then into confession.

The Jewish word Teshuvah, means to return – returning is the process for seeking atonement. It is about returning to the right path by repenting. A time to explore the meaning of who we are and what we have become, as well as who we want to be and how we want others to perceive us. A time to review our actions over the last year. To reflect on how we speak, how we act, how we carry ourselves.

Saying “I’m sorry” is easy. Doing real Teshuvah, is about being contrite and remorseful, finding a solution to the problem; promising yourself and the one you’ve hurt that you will try to never repeat your misdeed again. That’s difficult. That’s the challenge. It’s not the words that are difficult.  It’s meaning them. And not stopping until the injured party believes that you do.  Whew!!

The reality is, we are all going to do something that’s going to hurt somebody’s feelings. And we will get our feelings hurt as well, and we’ll try to brush it off and say it doesn’t matter. Where there is hurt, anger comes following close behind as an emotion. We can become hurt when we feel misunderstood, ignored, or unloved. We can become hurt at church when we feel unnoticed, overlooked, or unappreciated. We can become hurt at work when we feel slighted, overworked, or harassed. We can be hurt by our friends when we are left out of their plans.  I could go on.

Sylvia Boorstein, a Buddhist teacher: Nine Magic Words that could Change the World. I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Please forgive me.   It’s a prototype for the perfect apology.

With the utterance of these words, relationships can be healed, grief can be alleviated, and the scars of past wounds can be remedied.

Ross Bonander: 4 Steps: Make a Sincere Apology

Step 1: Take responsibility for your actions. Stick to “I,” he says, as in “I made a mistake.”      And, whatever you do, don’t let the next word be “but,” as in, “but you also blew it,” or, worse, “but you drive me crazy,” or, worst, “but you made me do it.” This is your apology; you are sorry. We take the first step when we take responsibility for our actions.

Step 2: Acknowledge the repercussions. “Get past your ego and any defensive posturing to confront your mistake: “I know I embarrassed you with that joke;”  “I realize that I ruined dinner with my rudeness.” Don’t say, “I’m sorry if you got offended.”  Or “I’m sorry you’re so sensitive.”

Step 3: Ask for forgiveness. If you can fix what you did wrong.  Making amends “has to do with restoring justice as much as possible… to restore … that which we have broken or damaged;” or to make a symbolic restoration when we can’t do it directly.

Step 4: Stop talking. “Let it end.” Don’t ruin an apology with an excuse; now that you’re vulnerable, don’t busy yourself rearranging your fig leaf.  Don’t mitigate your mistake by trying to squeeze in the last word and save face. You will, Bonander says, cancel out the first three steps and torpedo the whole apology. Here’s what not to say: “Come on, cut me some slack; everybody makes mistakes; even you have to admit you can be a . . . difficult person.”

The practice of self-examination and confession acknowledges the gap between our appearance and our actuality. Confession, allows us to choose a better path of becoming. In confession we say, God, I will not hide anything from you.  You know already.

C.S. Lewis: wrote these words about transparency:

What is the mot significant conversation you have every day? It’s not the conversation with God,
it’s the conversation with yourself before you speak to God.  
In that conversation you decide whether you are going to be honest and authentic with God,
or whether you are going to meet God with a mask, act, or pretense.