I’ll Take a Mulligan, Please

Sometimes we veer off course.  It happens to the best and the worst of us.  An adroit reader responding to a post about apologies last week commented, “I wish I could go back and UNDO a few of my sorries.”

Boy, do I identify with that.  I’ve made choices I wanted God not to forgive so much as to magically erase from history, as if they never happened.  If I’m honest about it, though, my desire to undo the past reveals a little unfinished business.

I come from a faith tradition (Christianity) that teaches anyone can be forgiven.  We don’t deserve it, but by grace we can receive it.  The only condition is that we forgive others who did us wrong.  Now that is easier said than done, and I do not want to trivialize how difficult forgiveness can be, but other traditions have a somewhat higher bar.  The Jewish tradition teaches that one must make amends and receive forgiveness from those harmed before seeking God’s forgiveness.  The Twelve Step tradition encourages folks to recognize their wrongs in the Fourth Step and to make amends for them in the Ninth Step.

We Christians can look right past that amends step.  I regularly practice religious confession to a priest, which is a lot like a Fourth Step and a little bit like the vidui, or prayers confession at Yom Kippur.  The Episcopalian practice makes me think hard about my resentments and releasing them in acts of forgiveness.  But the religious practice doesn’t require me to look as hard at repairing the harm I caused.  Of course, I don’t really want to do that anyway, but I can’t help wondering about the wisdom other traditions recognize in making amends.

The conclusion I reached is God doesn’t revise history.  He builds on it, using all the crumbs and brokenness for some good.  When we make amends, we build on our own history, taking something that fell short and lifting it up a notch or two.  It is possible to feel peace with the past, but also to feel disconnected from it.  I speak from personal experience on that count.  I imagine that making amends builds a bridge to that past and redeems it, so that it is no longer something I wish never happened or that I could do over.

Rabbi Lawrence Kushner poetically asserts that it is only by embracing our offenses that we can transform them to good and be reconciled to our past.

We go down into ourselves with a flashlight, looking for the evil we have intended or done—not to excise it as some alien growth, but rather to discover the holy spark within it.  We begin not by rejecting the evil but by acknowledging it as something we meant to do.  This is the only way we can truly raise and redeem it.

We receive whatever evils we have intended and done back into ourselves as our own deliberate creations.  We cherish them as long-banished children finally taken home again.  And thereby transform them and ourselves.  When we say the vidui, the confession, we don’t hit ourselves; we hold ourselves.

Join the conversation.  Can you find a holy spark in the meanest, most hurtful things you have done?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit http://www.AcrossTraditions.com.


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Making Amends

Of all the steps in teshuvah, I am especially interested in restitution, or making amends.  The Jewish and Twelve Step traditions recognize great power in this step, but Christians place little emphasis on it as a step towards healing or reconciliation with God.  What are we missing?

When we realize we have done something that hurt another person, it is natural to seek that person’s forgiveness as well as God’s.  In our house, we try to avoid the word “sorry” in apologies.  There are just too many ways it can go wrong.  There’s the pre-teen, sullen, single-word sentence uttered with downcast eyes that really means, “If I say nothing, maybe they’ll get bored and leave me alone.”  There’s the teenage, “Dad!  I said I was sorry, ok?” screamed defiantly and followed by a door slam that shouts, “No remorse here!”  Then there’s the one I personally despise, “I’m sorry you feel that way,” that actually means, “I’m good.  This is your problem.”   All of them remind me of the country western song, “Don’t tell me you’re sorry, I know how sorry you are.”

I encourage family members not to try to fake an apology if genuine remorse is absent.  It’s just better to ask for time to think about it.  When some remorse can be found, the script goes, “I realize how wrong I was.  Will you forgive me?”  Thanks go to my godfather who supplied the script.  We tend to do better with that.

Restitution is more than an apology, though.  The idea of restitution is to restore in a direct way that which we have broken or damaged or to do it symbolically if we can’t do it directly.  “I’m sorry I broke your lamp when I was drunk,” is an apology.  Replacing or repairing the lamp amends the offense.  If someone gets drunk, drives, and kills somebody in a traffic accident, he can’t go back and “un-kill” the person who died.  Becoming an organ donor is a symbolic amend that can give life back to someone in the future.  If I was careless with someone’s feelings, maybe donating to a cause the person cares about is a symbolic way of restoring care.

Of course, this is all hypothetical for me.  I have been practicing confession in the Episcopal tradition regularly for years, and I have never approached restitution as a part of the process.  Realizing the prominent role it plays in other traditions brought a real blind spot in my personal practice to light.  I take absolution to heart, burning my confession notes and not looking back.  Believe me, when I set about writing a book about confession, I would have loved to have had 10 years of notes to refresh my memory.  I can’t honestly regret burning them, though.  It’s wonderful to feel free.  Here’s the thing, though.  While I don’t feel burdened by my past, I do feel disconnected from it.

Making amends not only mends bridges in broken relationships.  Perhaps more significantly, it also mends bridges to a broken past.  Instead of regretting or recoiling from the past, restitution builds on it, allowing us to raise something good out of the ashes of something bad.  I suspect I’d have a very different feeling about my past if I had had the fortitude and courage to have made amends.

Join the conversation.  Have you ever fled the past instead of building on it?

Copyright 2011 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved.  Learn more at www.AcrossTraditions.com.