Church Skills: Forgiveness

The definitive sign that we are human may well be that we have an incredible capacity to make mistakes.  That may seem like a bad thing, but it isn’t. If we didn’t have this capacity, we wouldn’t be able to create anything new. We wouldn’t be able to learn or adapt. We’d be stuck doing the same old things in the same old ways forever.  Genetically, we are the product of hundreds of thousands of millions–maybe even billions–of mistakes. Evolution is not about perfection, it’s about adaptation. What starts as a mistake (“Wow, that is one abnormally tall animal!”) becomes an advantage. (“Hey, the tall one can eat all the leaves that none of us can reach!”)

Of course, mistakes are also difficult. When we make them, we often feel embarrassment and even shame.  When others make them, we feel disappointed and hurt.  What we can learn is often very hard to see at first. We think of mistakes as failures and we feel the discomfort of disruption in our expectations, our hopes, our sense of competence, and in our relationships. And yet, as human beings, we can’t avoid it. We are going to make mistakes.

I think Unitarian Universalists are particularly anxious about being mistake-makers.  In my ten years of ministry, I’ve watched people, committees, and whole congregations become paralyzed by this anxiety.   I’ve seen ideas that were destroyed by an almost compulsive need to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong and try to figure out how to avoid them all.  I’ve seen projects that have barely sprouted from their seed that are immediately buried by expectations and measurements of “success.” If a new Small Group Ministry program doesn’t have eight functioning groups of deeply engaged members by the end of the first year, we begin to wonder if it will ever succeed and may even end the pilot program early to avoid the appearance of failure.

So here we are: human beings destined to make mistakes and yet desperate to avoid them. And as Unitarian Unviersalists, we face an additional disadvantage: when we moved away from orthodox Christian theologies of sin and redemption, we gave up the stories, theology, and practices of forgiveness as well. And without them, we have no way back to ourselves, to each other, and to God when we inevitably make the mistakes that are part of being human.

I suspect this is one of the reasons that the idea of covenant is appealing to us, but not always effective. We set out the expectations for right relationship in our covenants, but we don’t have a way to name our failings (confession), make amends (repentance), or be reconciled to our community (forgiveness.)  Without these practices, we are stuck in maintaining the appearance of perfection. And that, in itself, is damaging to the relationship of trust we are trying to build as religious communities.

I don’t have an easy answer, I’m afraid. A new theology of forgiveness is not something that can spring full-grown from one person’s head.  We do, however, have some tools with which to begin. We have our covenants and perhaps can revisit them, paying attention to articulating what happens when they are broken.  We have the words of Rev. Rob Eller Isaac’s responsive reading, in which the gathered congregation repeats: “We forgive ourselves and each other; we begin again in love.”  We have all we have learned from our travels in and with liberal religion through the ages: road maps to forgiveness that still leave us room to explore and discover the stories, practices, and understanding we all need to make peace with this part of being human.

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3 thoughts on “Church Skills: Forgiveness

  1. Jung felt that without our myths – stories if you will – human beings flounder. You’re kind of hinting at that here. Having given up the stories of more orthodox theologies and knowing that “A new theology of forgiveness is not something that can spring full-grown from one person’s head”, UUs are in a hard place.

    But it is the same place that we progressive Christians find ourselves. This is a great mystery: The stories can’t be faked. If you don’t believe them, they lose some of their power. There is a great story here for Neil Gaiman. My father believes the stories and taught them to us with great passion. We learned them. Later we rejected the historical side but clung to the beauty. But then my children aren’t as interested. Without a theology of inspiration, they just can’t muster the same enthusiasm.

    What will we do?

  2. I think Unitarian Universalists are particularly anxious about being mistake-makers.

    Yes, indeed! A very important message and observation. Thank you!

    I’m not convinced, though, that people with a strong theology of sin makes anyone less susceptible to this sort of thing. Is it possible that it is not so much about theology as about class? Part of being middle to upper middle class – as most UUs are – is the drive to be seen as infallible. It part of the materialistic dogma required for “success” in the regular world. People don’t just drop it when they walk into church.

  3. Andrew–I’m not necessarily advocating a “strong theology of sin.” I AM advocating that we do some work to articulate a theology and practice of forgiveness. After all, we make mistakes. So even if we don’t condemn them as “sin,” we need a way back to each other.

    And yes, it’s also a part of the larger culture and class so many of us bring to church with us. Part of why we need to examine and respond to our fallibility is because we have an opportunity to lead here–to counter the cultural messages that value efficiency, excellence, and perfection more than human relationship, compassion, and kindness.

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