Our ministry theme for October is atonement. This is a direct nod to the Jewish High Holy Days, which begin this year with Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) on the evening of September 26th, and conclude with Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) on October 4th. It has become somewhat of a cliché at this time of year for UU ministers to acknowledge that our liberal religious tradition has no formal ritual of atonement. That is, we don’t have an explicit spiritual practice of apologizing to those we’ve harmed, whether human or divine. We don’t have a formal ritual for confession of sins. And we don’t have a formal ritual for offering forgiveness to those who’ve harmed us. Well, I decided a few months ago that I don’t want to preach “that” sermon this year. I don’t want to spend time in the pulpit lamenting the fact that we UUs don’t have rituals that bring us back into right relationship with our fellow humans and with the Holy, however we understand it. Let’s face it, we’re not big on ritual, period.
Having said that, I hope and trust all of us know that not having a formal ritual of atonement does not in any way mean we aren’t responsible for seeking forgiveness from those we’ve harmed or offering forgiveness to those who’ve harmed us. That’s why I don’t want to preach “that” sermon. I think we know this. I think we know that, ritual or no, we are responsible for forgiveness.
This applies not only to forgiveness in relation to others, but in relation to ourselves as well. The Yom Kippur rituals enable atonement for wrongs committed against other people and against God. As far as I know, Yom Kippur does not address the harms we do to ourselves. I’m thinking about the ways in which we second guess ourselves, hold ourselves to impossible standards, put enormous pressure on ourselves to succeed, succumb to fear, fail to listen to our instincts, “beat ourselves up” for making mistakes, fail to trust ourselves, engage in destructive behaviors, etc. The list goes on and on. There are so many ways in which we can and do harm ourselves. Given this, I feel called this month to focus some of my attention on what it means to forgive ourselves, to make amends, to start again with a renewed focus on our own health and well-being. What are the kinds of situations that require forgiveness of the self? What might a ritual of self-forgiveness look like? This is the sermon I want to preach this year – a sermon about how we forgive ourselves.
There’s a poem in our hymnal by Mary Oliver which starts with the words, “You do not have to be good. / You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.” At least for now, I’m reading these words as a challenge to be kind to ourselves; to take it easy on ourselves; to not put so much pressure on ourselves; and, when necessary, to forgive ourselves.
I’ll leave you with these questions: Is there some harm, great or small, you have done to yourself? And, if so, what words can you say in order to forgive yourself?
With love, Rev. Josh