Giving Yourself Another Glance

by BC

Our reading today comes to us from Brené Brown, titled “Manifesto of the Brave and Broken Hearted” from her book Rising Strong.

There is no greater threat to the critics and cynics
and fearmongers
than those of us who are willing to fall
because we’ve learned how to rise.

With skinned knees and bruised hearts
we choose owning our stories of struggle
over hiding, over hustling, over pretending.

When we deny our stories, they define us.
When we run from struggle, we are never free.
So we turn toward truth, and look it in the eye.

We will not be characters in our stories
not villains, not victims, not even heroes.

We are the authors of our lives.
We write our own daring endings.

We craft love from heartbreak,
compassion from shame,
grace form disappointment,
courage from failure.

Showing up is our power,
story is our way home,
truth is our song.
We are the brave and brokenhearted.
We are rising strong.

I remember the moment when church first disappointed me and I burned myself out. It was during my undergraduate years and I was one of those people in college — involved in pretty much any progressive student organization on campus — interfaith, multicultural, LGBT, student government.

I led worship services on campus for the progressive people of faith with a team of other likeminded leaders, and I still participated in the life of my home church, maintained a job, and so on. There is the saying about burning the candle at both ends, but really I just threw the whole candle into the fire. The eventual burnout should have been as clear as day.

One evening in late fall, as I was helping to lead a worship service, I had a sudden realization that I was overwhelmed and this nagging image of all my commitments came forth in my mind. Chief among those images was a controversy being experienced at my church.

Some months before that moment, the church was in the process of updating the chairs in the sanctuary. Key people assembled a committee, selected a few options, presented them to the congregation — and it was going by swimmingly, or so we thought. Slowly but surely everyone was swept up in the great chair controversy of 2006.

Some people felt there were not enough options, others felt that our historic chairs needed to stay — even with the admission they were uncomfortable and costly to maintain, others wondered why there hadn’t been a survey about the chairs, the board spent months with the chairs on their agenda, and the minister announced his retirement — though I doubt it was because of the chairs.

Frustration after frustration built up, promises and pledges to hold more meetings fell through, and all at once with all of the controversy — key leaders started to step back, wash their hands of the situation, and focus their energy elsewhere or nowhere. In my mind at that time it was enough to make me not want to go to church.

It was a significant piece that contributed to that burnout. It started as skipping every other week and quickly became every week. I don’t know about all of you, but I go to church not to hear about chairs during the announcements and Joys and Sorrows — sometimes the two became one, but I go to find a moment to center myself, take a breath from everything I’ve committed myself to, and leave with a framework for the rest of the week.

I was a month into my Unitarian withdrawal and as I led that late fall service in the chapel, I decided I had enough. Afterwards, I delegated my responsibilities as best as possible, and took a long break from anything church. Yes, even future and current ministers need breaks — not that I’m suggesting I already need one from here.

This was a classic case of burnout — not just from overdoing it as a student but also for allowing the church I had grown up in to crank up the heat and let it all boil over. I had also lost sight of that desire — the call — to engage, serve, and be served by a community of faith. Looking back to the chair controversy, I realize it was not just me, but the whole community in some way. We had all lost sight of our covenant and the bigger picture. Everyone became so focused on those chairs.

As the spring semester came and went and my church free existence continued, a good friend of mine decided to intervene that coming Fall. She demanded I start going to the synagogue with her. My objections ranged from, “But I’m not Jewish!” to “But they’ll know I’m not Jewish!” to “They’ll want me to do something!” There was no arguing with her.

We went one Friday evening, the place was jam packed, I tried to set aside my nerves and no, no one asked me if I was Jewish, or pointed out that I wasn’t Jewish, and no one asked me to do a single thing. The service that followed, while half in Hebrew, half in English — provided a catharsis I did not expect.

The joy was powerful, the holding of struggle and pain in the Jewish story was woven throughout, and the healing was real. It was Yom Kippur. The day of Atonement in the Jewish cycle of holy days. There was a healing that was so present, palpable, and not just for me — but for everyone in that room.

That congregation ministered to me and each other. It offered clarity, not guilt; release, not constraint. From that moment on, I attended synagogue as often as I could — and I started going back to church, even with the chair controversy still present.

The aha moment was in realizing that it wasn’t all about me, even thought part of my burnout was. It wasn’t about the chair controversy, being too involved, or my minister retiring — it was about the communities I was involved in being stuck and not forgiving one another and by extension, not allowing those involved, those in the chairs on Sunday morning — not allowing them room to breathe, let go of their own baggage, and begin again in love.

From that first time in a synagogue onward, Judaism has had a special place in my heart. And it is no different this weekend, as our Jewish brothers and sisters again observe and celebrate Yom Kippur — the day of atonement, the day of forgiveness, the sabbath of sabbaths.

Yom Kippur is the culmination of ten days known as the Days of Awe, where the power of God for some Jews, and the power of community and covenant are made manifest in ritual, story, and song. There are specific foods for breaking a ritual fast, songs and prayers only used on this day, and as I found out after that evening service — a near day long service the following morning that centers on the forgiveness of personal and communal shortcomings.

The ritual of most interest to me and, I feel, rather revolutionary is called the Kol Nidre — which means “all vows.” It is legalistic in its terminology, but sung beautifully. What makes it interesting to me is that what it proclaims is that all personal vows — all personal promises that have no bearing on other persons or interests for the coming year are declared null and void.

The slate of falling short of our promises to ourselves is wiped clean before they are even made. I cannot think of anything more powerful and more human than to publicly declare in ritual the reality that we will fall short despite our best intentions, we will disappoint one another no matter how hard we try, and we will need forgiveness for ourselves and others.

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but I come from a good Anglo-Saxon Protestant family, at least culturally, where the idea of falling short is labeled as inherent sinfulness — it is made to sound dirty, wicked, out of our control, but entirely our fault. What makes this different from the admission of falling short on Yom Kippur is that it is not wicked and dirty, but simply a part of humanity to be acknowledged and freely forgiven.

It is not something to dwell in guilt or shame about, but something to be embraced and learned from. Sin in Judaism is simply missing the mark — not the tarnishing of ones soul. It embraces our exhaustion, our overcommitments, our missed opportunities, and our unwillingness to love ourselves for who we are.

It takes the wickedness out of sin and reminds us that we are whole even when we miss the mark. Now, as a near lifelong Unitarian, I get uncomfortable hearing the word sin. I also find myself wondering what someone means when they say the word forgiveness.

In the back of my mind I find myself already objecting to an image of an angry god that demands blood and loyalty. And I imagine there is a truth to this for those of you that come from traditions or have experienced traditions that use sin and forgiveness as weapons.

But Yom Kippur has another lesson that reminds me to step back from those images. The Jewish tradition tells us that the Days of Awe are primarily an opportunity to envision and encourage our lives and our communities to be a little more caring with each passing year. While the Kol Nidre, the act of recognizing that we will fall short is centered on the individual, the spirit of Yom Kippur, as with all Jewish holy days, is on the community.

It is not about an angry God, but instead a loving community, it is not about inherent sinfulness, but about accepting people as they are, it is not about forgiveness because we need to be saved, but forgiveness because it frees not only ourselves but our communities from whatever is leaving us stuck and unable to move forward.

The power of this holy day in Judaism for Unitarian Universalists is that it teaches us there is always a way forward and there is always more room to renew our love for this congregation. It teaches us that if we let ourselves get stuck, either individually or communally, it does not only impact the members present here.

It impacts everyone that walks through that door, it impacts everyone we meet — and it is not because woundedness is less valuable than joyfulness. It is because if we let ourselves get stuck in bitterness and have no room for forgiveness, then the story we tell about ourselves changes.

A story of hope becomes a story of despair, a story of wholeness becomes a story that singles out one flaw and repeats itself over and over again. As we heard in our reading today from Brené Brown — we have a choice to let our stories take charge, define us, and render us powerless or to take the pen and write them ourselves. So too with congregations.

I know this congregation has been through a lot. You have examined old wounds — namely clergy misconduct from the past, stared directly at these wounds, talked about them, and by doing so have taken ownership of them and removed some of their power over this place. But that is only one part of the journey.

The second part is one that requires continual investment — continual renewal year after year. The second part of this journey is much like the power of Yom Kippur. We need to ask ourselves, again and again, how will we love ourselves as a congregation — broken, brave, healing, healed, and whole.

How will be renew that love in such a way that we do not allow ourselves to get hooked by whatever our chair controversy will be. How will we pave the way for growing health — and give up the quest for perfection. Before we answer these questions it needs to be clear that this is not about being the walking wounded — but rather the walking wholehearted.

Such wholeheartedness asks us, as we heard earlier, to begin again in love. How will we love ourselves as a congregation and as individuals this coming year? Is there someone in this room you’ve put off having a difficult conversation with? In your family? Your friends? Is there something you need to let go of — a volunteer position that no longer sustains you? A way of doing things in your life? What will you take on that renews you?

A new practice, spiritual or not, in your daily lives? A new way of being involved here — religious education, music, an office volunteer, and so on and so forth — or a new way of going out into the community? The questions and possibilities are limitless.

Yom Kippur wipes the slate clean for all the shortfalls we will experience in our lives in the coming year. It grants us permission to take risks — to try something new, to let go, and to find ways to no longer be stuck. The power of that day for me was a renewal of my spiritual journey and a forgiveness of myself for walking away.

I was invited to love my various communities again after taking a long deep breath. To this day those same chairs are still in the sanctuary of my home church in all of their historic glory. But the church has moved on. They’ve embraced risk and the opportunity to be in community with all of their differences and shortfalls.

Is it perfect? It never will be. Make no mistake of that. Is it healthy? Increasingly so. And one day the question of chairs or some other great matter before them may be approached more lovingly for those involved and those who are witnesses to it.

It’s been over a month since I’ve settled here as your new minister. And what a month it has been. And you may have noticed a few things are being done differently and a few things are experimented with each week. There are risks being taken and they are all in the spirit of health, love, and the well-being of this community.

Such risks and experiments are not carved in stone, but fluid and changeable — some will fall flat and some will be completely fantastic. So with all that is before us in the coming year and the years after that, I ask one thing of all of you: remember to begin again in love. Begin again in love when I, as your minister, make mistakes, and begin again in love when you or your friends make their own mistakes.

Let the promise of Yom Kippur be a promise for Unitarian Universalism. Let us forgive and be forgiven, let us continually renew our love as a congregation, and let us grow in kindness and compassion with each passing year. May we be open to risks and experiments for our own sake, knowing that church itself is one great experiment. Let us begin again in love…brave, brokenhearted, whole, and holy. May it always be so. Blessed Be.