A sermon by Rob Kinslow
First Parish of Sudbury, March 30, 2014
It was a Tuesday night back in November and there were seven of us, seven seminarians, gathered in a breakout room. We were there to discuss the papers we would be writing for the theology class we were all in. These papers would concern some aspect of God. By then we had read countless chapters from about a dozen textbooks concerning many doctrines about God. God as creator, God as the holy trinity, God as Aristotle’s unmoved mover. A few minutes into this discussion with my classmates I stumbled upon an interesting moment.
Let me set the scene. The seminary, Andover Newton, is Christian-based. We were a fairly diverse group in some respects. From very short to very tall. Three of us black, four of us white. Three women, four men. Ages ranging from thirties to sixties. Most belong to the United Church of Christ. Two of us were Unitarian Universalist. None of us really knew each other.
As we settled in for what was to be an hour-long discussion, Dennis, who serves as a prison chaplain, asked, “First, does everyone here believe in God?”
There was a pause, and then a general murmur of agreement, and several in the group commented on their belief. Most if not all said they believed in the Trinity—God, Jesus Christ and Holy Spirit. Or at least a Trinitarian experience of the one God. The other UU besides me was a young man named John. John is a military chaplain. He said he believed in Jesus, and that growing up in a single-parent household, without a father, he looked to God as his father.
Then it was my turn. I admitted that, after three semesters, I was taking in a lot of information that was new to me. I was raised as a devout Roman Catholic and there was in those early years a tendency to focus on Catholicism to the exclusion of everything else. I said to the group that I was reexamining many of my beliefs, and that I wasn’t absolutely sure about God, at least the God that was taught to me in my Catholic youth. I offered my own brief definitions of Unitarian and Universalism as a way of explaining that I might not share everyone else’s views about the Holy Trinity, even though that doctrine had been the core of my religious upbringing—indeed, it had been the core of my upbringing in general.
My classmates responded with generosity. They reassured me that there was much in the Catholic doctrine I might still find useful, and I assured them I did and agreed that that was so. Unitarian Universalism in fact has become the place where I feel I can practice the best of my Catholicism. As it happens, Catholicism lowercased actually means “universalism,” from the Greek root for universal. The word “catholic,” means, literally, “of many things.”
John (the other UU), responded to this by saying that many people today who are looking for a church are looking for some doctrine, something definitive, and that he saw UU as fitting the bill by being based very much on the teachings of Jesus Christ. Again, a general murmur of assent in the room, but not from me. I hadn’t really thought of UU as being focused on Christianity, its congregations followers of Jesus Christ. And I began to wonder if I’d gotten it all wrong.
Sitting there, it really hit me that many of my fellow students spend their Sundays in houses of worship where God and Jesus of Nazareth are usually on the bill, while that hasn’t been the case for me over roughly 20 years and two UU parishes, here and in Watertown. Sitting there with these other seminarians, that was an interesting moment, but it wasn’t the interesting moment I referred to earlier. That came next.
I said to John, “I do agree that there are many people seeking some grounding, some doctrine. But I also believe many, like me, have burning, burning questions and that those folks come to church to wrestle with the nature of God, of Jesus, of creation, of the universe.” Here I was referring to our principle of a free and responsible search for meaning.
I didn’t hear or see any general agreement to what I had just said, and suddenly I felt very much out of place.
I had just encountered a moment of doubt. And, actually, of great fear. There in that room I suddenly began to wonder whether I had made a huge mistake entering seminary. I felt lonely. I had thought most of my classmates were like me—arm-wrestling and mud-wrestling with this notion called God, with the very nature of our existence. Weren’t these years of study our opportunity to question everything, turn everything inside out and examine our belief systems before we head out into the world to lead others in the same thoughtful journey? Maybe most of my fellow seminarians are solid in their convictions about God and Jesus. Maybe I’m UU because it’s my nature to question. Or maybe I question because I’m UU. What I do know is that after walking away from Catholicism with a capital C many years ago, I have been longing for years to rebuild my faith, and now that I am, absolutely everything is on the table. I think of what an Episcopalian bishop said to me about a year ago. He said, “The older I get the more deeply I believe, but the fewer beliefs I have.” That strikes me as a worthy goal. But that night in November, in that room, I suddenly felt out of place.
I had entered a dark place. As I was speaking to the group, I found myself looking down and not at anyone’s faces. In a way, I was talking to myself, I was wrestling with myself. Not with God. Not with doctrines. I was wrestling with me.
Perhaps you have had similar moments, where doubt suddenly rushes in like water bursting through a dam, when you think you’ve made a mistake and that maybe it’s too late to change course. That’s a scary moment. Did I marry the right person? Did we send our kids to a good school? Did I choose the right profession? The right religion? Should I not have quit my job?
It seems too late but still we wonder. It’s a bit like a t-shirt I once saw, drawn in the comic book style of the famous pop artist Roy Lichtenstein. Very cartoon-like with big cartoon balloons. A woman is head in hand and saying, “Oh, my God. I forgot to have children!”
It was the 18th century poet Alexander Pope who wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” Interestingly, in that same poem from the year 1711 he wrote two other famous lines that sound very modern: “A little learning is a dangerous thing,” and “Fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
We fear many things. We fear our doubts and we even fear fear, but somehow we expose ourselves to fear time and time again. Sometimes a little learning is a dangerous thing, and we make a decision based on scant information. Suddenly we find ourselves in a dark and scary place. Sometimes we do foolishly go where angels wouldn’t be caught dead; we act on impulse and find ourselves deep in a La Brae tar pit. We are in darkness and a very sticky situation.
This is the kind of fear I’m addressing today. Certainly if someone is pointing a gun at you, fear is an appropriate response. It’s a question of physical safety. But I’m assuming that having a gun pointed at you is an exceedingly rare happenstance. Today I’m talking about the kind of fears we self-generate that lock us up and keep us from living and loving fully, fears that keep our light dim. A 20-watt life instead of being fully incandescent. This kind of fear is born of our need for emotional safety, and it is largely a fear of doing something wrong.
To err is human. And we’re human, after all. But I do believe Alexander Pope was right, that to forgive is the divine working through our human selves. It’s an act of divinity.
But … how is forgiveness connected with darkness and fear? I believe it has to do with something we call regret, which, if you think about it, is simply a fear of the past. Regret is doubt in the rearview mirror. To regret means we haven’t forgiven ourselves for how we responded to past circumstances. We wish we hadn’t done something, said something, acted a certain way. That feeling causes us to fear making another mistake. We fear feeling that way again.
And I think therein lies the key to living without so much regret, and not living in fear, not living in a self-imposed darkness.
Because here’s the twist: often when we talk about forgiveness, we think of it as something we do for others. We’ve all heard about the power of forgiveness—and it is indeed a powerful thing, to let go of a grudge, a bitterness, a debt someone owes us. It can be liberating. It is also very hard to do. Sometimes it is unimaginable to forgive someone and it takes years. But often the context is, how can I forgive if the other person doesn’t truly appreciate the pain he or she caused me? How can I forgive when the crimes against me were so horrendous? These are real and difficult questions.
But I would like to pose a different question: how can I forgive someone else if I haven’t learned to forgive myself?
What do I have to forgive myself for? Well, I’m here to say: I’ve made some mistakes in my life. I’ve erred. I’ve made some hasty decisions, decisions based on just a little learning. I’ve rushed in where angels would fear to tread. At those times I thought I was being assertive, decisive, “following my star.” Believing that for me, certain experiences were meant to be magical, so if things appeared a little dicey, why, that was okay. Most of these experiences ended, shall we say, not ideally, and I was humbled.
Do I regret any of it? Not anymore. First, there’s not much I can do about the past. In fact, unless you know something about metaphysics that I don’t, I don’t think there’s really anything I can do about the past. Except change the way I feel about it. The truth is, I did live with regret. For example, I wondered for years how much more fulfilling my life might have been had I pursued a career in music.
What changed? I learned to forgive myself. This grew partly from my own gradual realization that any grudges I was dragging through life with me were only dragging me down. These included grudges I bore toward me. I came to realize that I couldn’t think of one positive aspect of staying resentful toward myself—or toward anyone else.
And I have come to believe that to learn to forgive oneself is a first step toward learning to not live in fear. In my own life I have found that once I learned to forgive myself it became enormously easy to forgive others. Nowadays, if someone behaves badly and I am the victim—even something as trivial but aggravating as being cut off in traffic—my response is, “How bad must it be for them that they had to act that way toward me.” That isn’t only forgiveness; I think it’s mercy, too. And love for oneself. A love that says, “Hey. I didn’t deserve that, but they don’t know. They don’t know how wonderful I am!”
Living this way, I have found that it is possible to not be scared all the time, either. To not live in fear. Which also means to not live with regret. A fear of the past, doubt in the rearview mirror.
Several years ago, standing in this very spot, I offered a eulogy for a beloved member of our parish family. His name was David Goldberg. He was an irascible force of nature, and so in his honor, that day I wore this button on my lapel. It says, “Question Authority.” As I began the eulogy, I referred to the button and made what I thought was a light joke to lighten up the mood. I said that I lent this button out to friends who were called for jury duty. People laughed.
Well, what are the chances. After the memorial service I received many compliments for my words, and that of course felt good. But what I remember most of all was a woman who came up to me, visibly upset and clearly anxious to speak to me. She said, “I just want you to know that my brother was murdered several years ago and the trial kept getting delayed because they couldn’t find enough jurors. So please don’t tell people it’s okay to skip jury duty.” I mumbled a clumsy apology and the woman vanished into the crowd. I never saw her again.
If that woman only knew how often I have thought of her and have held her—and her brother—in my heart. Of course she doesn’t know. But I know. And after a few years of regret I’ve learned to forgive myself the blunder. I’m sorry for the pain I caused this woman, for however inadvertent it may have been, I clearly re-opened a wound when my sole intention that day was to heal. Only she knows the pain I caused her. But only I know how much I learned from that moment, and how much more carefully I might choose my words in the future.
I suspect everyone here can relate. We all have those “cringe moments,” as they are called. Ever have them? Of course you do. If you’re like me, you’re sitting in your car at a stop light and suddenly a memory pops up, and you shudder. You groan.
So this is what I want to say about moments like that and about self-forgiveness: no one needs to witness the act of forgiving yourself other than you. It is between you and yourself. You don’t need to go into a confessional booth. You don’t need to call a meeting. You can simply wake up one morning and decide that you have forgiven yourself. If during the course of the day you decide you don’t believe you have truly forgiven yourself, try again the next morning. And the next. Entertain the notion that if you have been beating yourself up day after day about something, sometimes for years, you might need to forgive yourself day after day to undo the hurt, undo the damage you inflicted on yourself. It might take some time for those toxins to rise up and exit. The rule of thumb: Be at least as good to yourself as you have been hard on yourself. I think that’s only fair.
Besides, you have to move on. Life moves forward, not backward. Just as our bodies repair and rebuild in the dark of sleep, I have to believe that so do our hearts and spirits grow stronger as time moves forward and life never stops teaching us, never stops giving us the gift of days. And nights. And mistakes. And we grow wiser. More loving. And more forgiving.
So what about that moment several weeks ago at Andover Newton, in that breakout room with those six other seminarians? That moment of fear I experienced?
Well, I didn’t tell you the whole story. There was one more thing I said in that moment, and it flew out of me with no warning and shattered any fear I may have had. And pointed the way toward my future.
I was saying to the group that I believed there were some people who came to church to seek help in their own questions about the nature of God, of Jesus, of creation, of the universe. “They have burning, burning questions,” I said. And then it hit me, why I was in seminary, why I was walking into this darkness, why I was wrestling with these very questions myself.
I said, almost emphatically, “I’m working for them.” And by “them” I mean you. I felt my heart rate slow down; I suddenly wasn’t worried that my beliefs might be at odds with everyone else in the room. A peace came over me. I immediately forgave myself for doubting my decision to enter seminary. “I’m working for them.” Huh. I’m going into the fire, into the darkness, because if I’m wondering about all of this, and I want some answers, I’ll bet others are wondering, too, and I’ll bet they’d like some answers, or at least really good questions, and in this lifetime, please.
So maybe the point is not to live without doubt … to doubt is human because to err is human … no, the point may be to try to live without regret. So that you’re not on your deathbed saying, “Oh, my God. I forgot to believe in you.” Or Yahweh. Or the Buddha. Or Brahman. Or Allah. Or myself.
Live in such a way that one day you aren’t saying, I forgot to believe in myself. I forgot to forgive myself. I held onto things and what good did that do me?
If we can learn to live with our doubt, maybe we can learn to live without so much regret.
If we can learn to live without regret, maybe we can learn to not live in fear.
A few days after I first wrote this sermon back in December, Nelson Mandela died. Now there was a man who knew about fear and courage—and forgiveness. Mandela said courage isn’t not having fear, it’s triumphing over it. Maybe we can’t live without fear; fear is inevitable. That doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to living in fear. I believe there’s a difference.
It begins by learning to forgive oneself, a private act that has huge implications for the public face you present to the world. It says, “This is my light, the light I have to give the world. It isn’t perfect. Sometimes it is dim or downright stupid. Sometimes it is blaring and blinding and kind of clumsy. When it does those things, I am sorry. But it is my light and I give it freely, for better or worse, so that neither you nor I need ever be afraid of the dark. Or walk with fear. There are too many stars shining, including yours and mine, for either of us to ever waste our time on being afraid.”
Amen, may it be so, and may the light of your Holy Spirit shine upon you and show you the way home.
Sweet Darkness – Rob Kinslow
By Guest Speaker