Western translator, author, and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism Ken McLeod wrote, “Devotion, whether to a tradition, a practice, a teacher, or an ideal, is the fuel for faith.” I have recently talked with some local Rabbis who told me that these days the Synagogue often has only a few people in attendance for weekly Shabbat Services. But on Yom Kippur, the Synagogue is packed, they open up walls and put in lots of extra chairs to accommodate everyone.
These high holy days are the “fuel for faith” for many Jewish people. As you hear from Bev’s explanation that Jane read earlier, this is a time of reviewing the past year and admitting to your transgressions, of re-connecting with ancestors, and of setting things right, right with god, if you have one, yourself, and everyone in your life.
I have wondered why Unitarian Universalists don’t have a tradition for admitting our transgression, reconnecting with our ancestors, and setting things right with god, if you have one, ourselves and/or everyone in our lives. Perhaps admitting our transgressions is tough for us, Unitarian Universalists. I do wonder if it is tougher for us than it is for the people of another faith. Is it tough for you? We heard how difficult it was for Jonah. He wanted to run away from his responsibility, hide from it and god. And we heard how he didn’t believe that the people of Nineveh deserved mercy or reconciliation with god. There are certainly times when I would prefer to avoid or run away from a problem, a person, a responsibility, an issue, a guilt, a resentment, a transgression rather than face it head on. How about you? And there have been times I felt the person I was resentful of didn’t deserve my forgiveness or reconciliation; heck there were times I wondered if I deserved forgiveness for something I had done. Have you ever felt that way?
Buddha offered a parable that was something like this: “Imagine that you are walking along a path in the forest and suddenly, out of the trees, comes a poisoned arrow that heads right into your thigh. When the arrow goes into your thigh, do you say to yourself, ‘I wonder what kind of wood the arrow is made out of… I wonder where its bird feathers came from… I wonder how far the arrow traveled before it hit me… NO! What you are most probably thinking is, ‘Get me to a doctor and get this freaking arrow out of my leg!’”
This makes sense, but many of us do not remove the metaphorical arrow from our metaphorical leg. We dwell on it instead sometimes for years. I know I have.
After my father got into recovery from his alcoholism, he came to me wanting to reconcile. He had done his fourth and fifth steps in Alcoholics Anonymous, a searching and fearless moral inventory, and admitted to God, to himself, and to another human being the exact nature of his wrongs. And he told me that before we could reconcile he needed to make amends to me.
Now you might wonder why I am telling you this story when we are talking about Yom Kippur. First, Yom Kippur is about confessing, being honest in our personal inventory, and then working on forgiveness and reconciliation with one’s god and other people. My father had certainly done these things.
But there was a hitch to all this. At the point my father came to me, I was still in process. I hadn’t done all the forgiveness work I needed to do and was not sure I was ready for reconciliation. I wanted to think about it some more. I wanted to write about it some more. I wanted to know who made the arrow before I was ready to heal. In other words, I wanted to be in control of when and how this happened. I couldn’t even conceive of reconciliation with my father. I was stuck and not sure what to do.
Unitarian Universalist minister Reverend Forrest Church wrote a sermon on Yom Kippur and talked about this stuckness:
“Look at it this way. You are reading a book. And then you get stuck. I know it's happened to you. So often it's happened to me. I read a page and then realize I wasn't paying attention. My mind wasn't tracking. So I go back to the top and read it again. Simple, right? No, not so simple. Because, more often than not, when I go back to read the page again I get even less out of it than I did the first time. I go into a kind of trance. I concentrate harder, but to no avail. I read sentence after sentence, and then get to the bottom of the page and again realize I haven't caught the drift. So I go back to the top. This time I really concentrate. I read it word by word. I hear the words ring in my brain, but they don't even compose sentences. The harder I try to get through this page, the more completely incomprehensible it becomes. I am in a trance, increasingly frustrated, more and more lost.
In life, as when reading a book, whenever you are stuck, when the harder you try the less you comprehend, when you have read the same passage three times with diminishing returns, my suggestion follows the logic of this sacred season: ‘Turn the page.’”
Reverend Church concludes, “Yes, you will probably have missed something. But sometimes trying to find something you know you have missed just delays you from discovering things that await you when you turn the page. New characters. A twist in plot. Or the development of character, which almost never happens when we are stuck--when we are going over the same old page, again and again, caught in a trance, looking for paragraphs and finding sentences, looking for sentences and finding words. Not able to go on. Not able to turn the page. Reading the same words, the same thoughts, the same feelings over and over again, hitting bottom and then going back to the top of the page, the same page, where we are stuck with ourselves or with others or with our lives. So that's my message … and the message of the season. If you've read some recent chapter from the script of your life over and over again, if you keep reading it over and it's making less and less sense, seal the book, turn the page.”
So, soon after my father approached me, I turned the danged page with my father. I decided to meet with him, even though I hadn’t done all the work I needed to do, even though I didn’t feel I was ready, or in control of the situation, even though I had left so many things unexplored in our relationship. I had been working to forgive him for my own internal healing, but reconciliation?
That was something completely different. I let him share his Step work with me. I listened, I accepted his confession, his forgiveness, and his desire for reconciliation. And I was numb. I wanted there to be more. In my head I had turned the page, but in my heart turning the page was much more difficult.
I wanted to a new beginning with my father, but it would take some more time for me. I could now treat him with kindness, compassion, respect, but I still needed joy, love, and connection to really turn the page. I knew I had just ear-marked it to come back to it later.
The key ended up being the confession of my own numbness to him. Admitting this made it easier—not easy—just easier for us to work together to find the joy, love and connection that we once had, and we both wanted to find again.
In the Jewish faith, Yom Kippur calls for confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation. We can, with the help of our spiritual community here, as well as our own internal resources, do the work of confession and even forgiveness, knowing sometimes, reconciliation may not be possible.
Sometimes, the person is dead, or is not ready, or you are not ready, or the person is not someone you really want to reconcile with—perhaps they are an abuser—and we have to turn the page without reconciliation. Our heart will not be fully healed, but we must move on in our lives. As Rev. Church says: “If you've read some recent chapter from the script of your life over and over again, if you keep reading it over and it's making less and less sense, seal the book, turn the page.” Seal the book. Easy to say, hard to do. I told you of a page I had to come back to, but within all of us there are books that just need to be sealed permanently, so we can move on.
What do you think about a Unitarian Universalist tradition/ritual that would focus on confession, forgiveness, ancestors, reconciliation, and gratitude? What would it look like? Would you participate in it? If you did, do you think it would help you move on, clear you of some of the emotional junk that you carry around, would it help you be more spiritually grounded or even grow spiritually? I can only speak for myself. The process with my father took years. I didn’t have any tradition or ritual that kept me coming back to the unresolved feelings that distanced me from my father and ate at my own heart. Perhaps if there were a yearly ritual that held me spiritually accountable for coming back time and time again to the issues that I needed to confess, deal with, focus on, I might have found healing sooner. Maybe reconciliation could have been easier. What about you? Would a UU Yom Kippur type of ritual or tradition be meaningful in your life?