Three Little Words

You know what The United Methodist Church needs?  A Day of Atonement.  A good old-fashioned nation-wide, denomination-deep day of saying “I Am Sorry!” — to God, to each other, and to ourselves.  For a vast number of reasons, we United Methodists have seemingly lost the capacity to apologize, to humble, and to take responsibility for reconciliation and restoration.  Our church is rife with senseless and toxic conflict, generally grounded in immense egos unwilling to compromise on any issue, large or small.  We are CHOOSING to be broken, divided, contentious, and petty.  This is our witness to the world of what it means to be Christian.

Oh, I know, it’s not our only witness.  Look at the amazing things we are doing in Japan and Haiti and in a handful of congregations.  We put positive spins on things (ReThink, Change the World, etc.).  It is not all conflict and division.  But it is certainly more than necessary, and I would say it is more than tolerable.  We simply do not have time to waste being immature, selfish, small-minded and indignant.  We must get over ourselves, and quickly.

This isn’t even a matter of who is right and who is wrong.  In our culture, saying I am sorry is taken as an admission of guilt or wrong.  If I seek to repair a relationship or make amends by apologizing, I must somehow be in the wrong.  This is a short-sighted and childish (child-like?) understanding of apology.  You and I may disagree — vehemently — and I may be convinced that I am in the right, but that does not give me the right to be cruel, hostile, aggressive, demeaning, intolerant, caustic or downright hateful.  The WAY we disagree is as important as what we disagree about, and this is where we need to apologize.  We fight like barbarians — no rules, go for the jugular, don’t stop until the opponent is lying bloody and battered on the ground.  Not quite the “turn the other cheek” guidance of God’s Son.

The sun goes down on our anger on a daily basis.  Many of our congregations are being eaten alive by a cancer of conflict.  Sides entrench and polarize and reduce every conceivable issue into a win-lose situation.  Lines are drawn, factions form, and the possibility of working together toward a mutually acceptable alternative is completely lost.  What is up with that?  Aren’t all of us better than some of us?  Is there truly a vision of the realm of God that is defined by winners and losers?  Confronted by the parable of the sheep and the goats, we race each other to see who can act goatiest.

Taking personal responsibility for healthy and positive relationships should not be optional to Christians.  The three little words I Am Sorry are powerful.  First, “I.”  The person we disagree with may actually be wrong.  They may be the problem.  They may be a jerk.  You may be right.  So what?  Big deal.  There are more important things in this world than being right and getting one’s own way.  We teach little children that demanding their own way is unacceptable.  We teach children to stop being selfish, to share, to be kind.  Why the double standard?  If it is true for junior, it should be true for us.  It is time for us to grow up.  The way we grow up is to take responsibility for our own actions.  No matter how badly someone else behaves, we are called to the highest standards of civility, kindness and respect.  Our own behavior is the only thing we control — we should strive to act in ways beyond reproach.  We have an opportunity to teach, to model, to transform, but only if we will exercise a measure of Spirit-given self-control.  I am the one responsible for what I think, what I say and what I do.  In all things I must work to honor and glorify God and love my neighbor as myself.

Second, “Am.”  Not wish to be, not want to be, not trying to be, not pretending — I Am.  True apology is sincere.  It is not grounded in ego or need.  It is a core value.  If I possess any measure of the God who is love, if I am interested in any way in following the instruction of Jesus the Christ, if the Holy Spirit is working within me to the most infinitesimal degree, then I will treat other people with dignity, grace and respect.  If I choose to ignore God, deny Christ, and thwart the Holy Spirit, then I will do what I damn well choose and I will continue to make an ass of myself in the way I deal with those with whom I disagree.  Pretty clear, pretty cut and dried.  If God is in charge, it will be evident in how I act.  If I am in charge, same deal.  Hhmmmmm.

Third, “Sorry.”  Regret that all is not as it should be.  Sorrow that there is brokenness between us.  Desiring that the negative might be replaced by positive regard.  To be sorry requires some significant knowledge on my part.  I must understand humility, grace, kindness, compassion, mercy, justice, love, unity, reconciliation, forgiveness, acceptance, tolerance, gentleness, patience, and a host of other values and behaviors that don’t come naturally and are not highly prized in our self-centered, consumeristic, materialistic, competitive Western culture.  Thank God — literally — that I don’t have to learn these all myself, but that if I will trust in God and stay connected to the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, these things will be second nature to me and manifest in spite of me.  All I have to do is open myself to the fulfilling of the Holy Spirit and there will no longer be any capacity within me for hate, anger, vengeance, aggression, violence or intolerance.  Cool.

The ability to not only seek but embrace reconciliation may be the clearest and truest measure of how well we are connected to God.  Piety is a lousy measure, and we can say or claim almost anything.  But how we navigate disagreement and dissension?  We can’t fake that.  We will be known — and judged — by the fruit we bear.  When we tear down, criticize, attack, injure, insult, denigrate and destroy, it is nothing less than the outward and visible sign of what and who we really are inside.  The same is true when we speak the truth in love, when we build bridges and seek harmony and reconciliation.  How do we wish to be known?  What is our witness to the love of God in Christ?  The key to transformation may simply be three little words: I Am Sorry.

27 replies

  1. Dan,
    If you add some good old fashioned repentance to that atonement, I believe that you have a real winner. And what better time for us to repent (and not just for the traditional politically incorrect sins) than during the lenten season. Blessings!

  2. Thanks Dan for your relevant, but painful, words. Painful in calling out the toxicity that I REALLY wanted to believe was more of an anomoly than it is.

  3. There are messages I hear and I get mad. Not because what is said is false – but because it is true. The message rings true and the path is made clear for me to follow. The path isn’t easy, and that’s the part I’m probably mad at the most. Most sermons and thoughtful reflection does this for me. It creates a dissonance with the knowledge that my behavior is falling short of the mark that God has set for me. I am sorry.

    Thanks again for this, Dan. I (we) have some work to do.

  4. What do you do with a person who is doing a lot of damage and isn’t sorry? Our pastor has almost destroyed our church and will not accept any responsibility for the harm he is causing. He claims he has done nothing wrong, and will not admit he is to blame. He thinks he knows more than everyone else and if someone disagrees with him, then that person is always at fault. The people who have nothing to apologize for are at the mercy of the person who is causing all the problems. How can we get someone to be sorry when they aren’t?

    • Your situation sounds painful, but not uncommon. Two observations, and then a few questions (since I don’t know the whole story, and there is ALWAYS more to a story such as yours):
      1. We can’t make someone else feel or act in a certain way. I can’t make you accept responsibility or feel regret or remorse. I only have control over my own thoughts, emotions, and actions. When I am engaged in any relationship, I am responsible for my own behavior, and the bad behavior of the other person in no way excuses my own behavior. I need to act beyond reproach regardless.
      2. We are in congregations for a reason. Together we are stronger than individually. Where there is true consensus, these problems are addressed. A true majority of people will not tolerate the bad behaviors of individuals. It is only when there is not clear agreement that these things go on and on. Generally, a congregation exists in such a conflict because it only involves a few people with differences of opinion, and the majority of people aren’t even aware of the problem.

      Which leads me to my questions:
      1. How has the situation been addressed so far?
      2. Who is involved? Is it a few people on each side?
      3. Are there people who feel the pastor is in the right in this situation? Is it all one sided?
      4. What are others doing besides the pastor that may be contirbuting to the problem?
      5. Where is the Staff-Parish Relations Committee in all this?
      6. Has the Staff-Parish Relations Committee spoken with the District Superintendent?
      7. What are the specific issues you are concerned about? The general sense of blaiming one person for everything wrong is impossible to resolve.

      These are just some basics — probably most of them have been addressed. All of us have something to be sorry for — an unkind thought, a harsh judgment, an insult or slight. Until we can come to humility, we still have a long way to go, and it is never easy dealing with someone who feels they have nothing to apologize for.

      • So your solution is to blame the victim and make those who are wronged take full responsibility for the situation? When does the person who is wrong have to step up and take some responsibility? And when do those who made the terrible decision to send this person to us have to take responsibility? No, it is just us who are the victims that have to pay any kind of price.

      • I am not sure where you read blaming the victim into my response, and while you may be offended by this, I think the angry and defensive tone of your response may be part of the problem. As I say, I don’t know the whole story — I actually don’t know any of the story except that you are unhappy with your pastor. I know a small part of your side of the situation. I don’t know anyone else’s, including the pastors or the District Superintendents. All I am saying is that I suspect there is more to this situation than a simple “he’s wrong, we’re right” explanation.

  5. You are missing the point. Our pastor is the problem, and like so many at the conference you refuse to admit it. You and others like you need to learn to admit your mistakes and take responsibility for hurting our churches. Over a hundred people have left our church and the vast number of people left are considering leaving as well. We are not “unhappy” with our pastor. Our pastor has single-handedly destroyed a good church, and we will not apologize to him for it.

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