Ministers Column October 2011

The 2011 Jewish High Holy Days began on the evening of September 28th with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. They end on October 8th with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In reference to these “days of awe,” our theological theme for October is atonement.

For Jews the mandate to seek atonement is very clear. In the Book of Leviticus God specifies to Moses that the tenth day of the seventh month shall be a day of atonement: “It shall be a holy convocation for you: you shall deny yourselves and present the Lord’s offering by fire; and you shall do no work during that entire day; for it is a day of atonement, to make atonement on your behalf before the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 23: 27-28).

You likely know what I’m going to write next. Unitarian Universalism, being the modern liberal, religious tradition that it is, does not mandate a practice of atonement for its members. We do not say: “You must admit your wrongdoings and seek forgiveness from those whom you’ve harmed.” There are good reasons for our refusal to make such a mandate. We recognize that in matters of faith and spirituality, at least for
us, mandates are not good motivators. We UUs typically don’t engage in spiritual practices because some authority outside of ourselves tells us to. Rather, we engage when it comes from within. For us, any spiritual practice feels most heartfelt, authentic and honest when the motivation comes from within. This is one of the characteristics I love most about our faith. This is religious and spiritual freedom.

Having said that, we also need to practice atonement. Who among us has not made mistakes? (I can think of two mistakes I’ve made on the day I’m writing this column, and it’s only 11:00 A.M.). Who among us has not caused harm to another human being, either by accident or on purpose? (Ugh. Three today. None on purpose.) Who among us has not failed in some way to live up to our vision of who we want to be? (Today, it’s just not happening.) Who among us has not missed the mark? (Again, not even close today, but there’s still time to turn it around.)

I know this: the act of saying “I’m sorry,” and really meaning it, brings healing and repairs relationships.

And I know this: The act of saying “I accept your apology” or “I forgive you,” and really meaning it, brings healing and repairs relationships.

But I know it’s hard to mean it. I don’t like to admit that I’m wrong or that I’ve made a mistake or that I’ve missed the mark. I especially don’t like to admit that I’ve hurt someone. But the alternative is worse: distance, separation, broken relationships, a failure of intimacy, a failure of trust. We don’t need a mandate to seek atonement. But the lack of a mandate should not be an excuse to avoid it either. Because we
are imperfect, we need to practice atonement.

With love,

Rev. Josh