I continue to look to expand on my reflecting on prayers that have pulled me and others through, exploring the prayer Jesus taught us, the Lord’s Prayer. The version of this prayer in my United Church of Christ Book of Worship follows:
“ “Our Father,
Who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
As we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
For this is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen.”
What stands out to me today is the phrase “forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”.
Included in the request for forgiveness is the recognition that we are wrong. I can still remember one of the first times I was invited to recognize I did wrong. For some reasons, as a little boy, my parents asked me to not get on the phone. But there was excitement around whatever phone call was going on. So, tiptoeing to the other room, I picked up the phone and listened. I still can’t remember what the conversation was about. But I can still remember my parents saying “is that you on the phone, Micah?” I crashed that headset back onto its handle, hanging up as quickly as my little itty bitty hands could do so. And when they confronted me later, I denied it, spinning the most fabulous lie my 5 or 6 year old brain could imagine. Likely, they knew full well that I was telling my first tall tale.
I don’t believe I ever admitted to them I had not followed their directions, nor that I had lied to them. Somehow I felt admitting my error would make them look at me different or, just as bad at the age of 5 or 6, get me punished.
I don’t think admitting you are wrong ever gets easy, does it?
One of my favorite musicals is the play “Rent”. To me one of the most heart-wrenching scenes is this one, where Maureen & Joanne break up at their engagement party:
Every single day,
I walk down the street
I hear people say ‘baby so sweet’
Ever since puberty
Everybody stares at me
Boys girls i can’t help it baby
So be kind and don’t lose your mind
Just remember that i’m your baby
“ Take me for what i am
Who i was meant to be
And if you give a damn
Take me baby
Or leave me
“Take me baby or leave me
A tiger in a cage
Can never see the sun
This diva needs her stage
Baby lets have fun
You are the one i choose
Folks would kill to fill your shoes
You love the lime light to now baby
So be mine and don’t waste my time
Cryin’ ‘oh honey bear are you still my, my, my baby?’
“Take me for what i am
Who i was meant to be
And if you give a damn
Take me baby or leave me
“No way, can i be what i’m not
But hey, don’t you want your girl hot?
Don’t fight, don’t lose your head
‘Cause every night who’s in your bed?
Who’s in your bed?
It won’t work
I look before i leap
I love margins and discipline
I make lists in my sleep baby
Whats my sin?
I follow through
I hate mess but i love you
What do with my improptu baby?
So be wise ’cause this girl satisfies
You got a prize so don’t compromise
You’re one lucky baby
“ Joanne: take me for what i am
Maureen: a control freak
Joanne: who i was meant to be
Maureen: a snob yet over attentive
Joanne: and if you give a damn
Maureen: a loveable droll geek
Joanne: take me baby or leave me
Maureen: an anal retentive
“Both: thats it
Joanne: the straw that breaks my back
Both: i quit
Joanne: unless you take it back
Maureen: what is it about them?
Both: can’t live with them or without them
Both: take me for what i am
Joanne: who i was meant to be
Maureen: who i was meant to be
And if you give a damn
Joanne: and if you give a damn then
Take me baby, or leave me
Maureen:take me baby, take me or la-la-la-la-la-leave me
Both: take me baby or leave me
Spoken: guess i’m leaving i’m gone!”
What is so heart-wrenching about this scene to me is that it is clear these two women do love each other. All they want in all the world is to hear from the other their feelings matter, their hurt is important, and to hear the other say “I am sorry for the pain I’ve caused”.
This doesn’t happen. Both defend their actions, their perspective, in a way that says that the other is entirely at fault. Both view the other’s statements of pain as attacks and put up walls. Ultimately the story of “Rent” shows these two’s lives drift apart, forever alienated.
John Gottman, in his Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work, reviews the studies of couples over the years who survive difficult times in relationships, going on to thrive, and those who don’t. What Gottman finds, together with the other researchers on his team, is that the heart of what makes relationships work is recognizing what Gottman calls one’s partner’s “bids”, in other words when they reach out to you with vulnerability. If you respond in a way that, as Maureen and Joanne do in this scene from “Rent”, shuts down the other, that’s leading to a doomed end in your relationship. But responding with tenderness, openness, listening, admitting your part in wrong, or compassion – all ways of responding to vulnerability by being vulnerable as well – well, these are key ingredients to developing a relationship that grows deeper through its struggles.
We often don’t recognize it but admitting we may be wrong in any relationship is one of the most vulnerable choices we can make. I can remember some times in my marriage to my now late wife Katharine that we had some pretty heated, heartfelt disagreements which I saw no way through. I remember at some points wanting just to say “nope. It’s all you” because I was so hurt by what happened. But whenever I chose to be vulnerable, to admit I too might be wrong, I may have caused her pain too, and to listen to her pain, her vulnerability, her fear, though that choice would be so painful and frightening, oh how things would open up! According to Gottman’s research the reason the deep, loving marriage we had for 12 years became as deep as it was in part was that we chose to open up, to be vulnerable, to admit in such moments of great pain and heartache that “you know, I might be wrong. Let me hear and understand you”.
Is it any wonder that when Jesus envisions through his model prayer the way forward from the pain, injustice, heartache, so present in our world to living out this world becoming as it is in heaven, Jesus places right in the center of that prayer a call to admit we might be wrong.
Admitting we might be wrong and being open to God as present in our lives and yes, present in the lives of those whom we may have wronged and alienated, is so central to the spiritual life Jesus and all the great spiritual masters of every faith envision.
To me one of the great ways of saying this is the title of Desmond Tutu’s now classic book No Future Without Forgiveness. The converse is true: without admitting you have done wrong, it is very hard for forgiveness to happen. And without admitting you could be wrong, either in how you view a situation or what you have done, there is no way you can ever hear another’s story fully and come to understand how your mistaken beliefs or choices may have caused them harm.
Without Maureen and Joanne being able to admit there is more to the story of their love than all their posturing and needing to be right, there is no future for them. The same is true in our romantic relationships and our friendships.
It is also true in our communities. As long as people like me who are white, straight, cisgender, and male hold onto our privileged positions and opinions, what future can there be? If we dig our heels in the sand as we often do, proclaiming that those with backgrounds and experiences like our own are wrong, how can we ever know the truths their experiences have taught them? How can we ever listen and come to realize what perspectives we are missing, that are incomplete. To fail to admit we might not have the whole picture, to refuse to admit the way our ways of relating individually and as a society are marginalizing those different than us, and maybe oppressing them… well it leads to a future not of beloved community for all, but of deeper alienation, fear, and even possibly violence. That is no future at all.
And in our spiritual lives, in our relationships with God or (if you have some other spirituality) whatever you consider Sacred, how can we grow at all if we go through life assuming that our point of view, our perspective, is the whole picture? The ultimate point of all of our spiritual practices – be they meditation or prayer, mindfulness or fasting, spiritual reading or spiritual writing – is not simply reinforce to us how right we are. No, it is to push out of what is comfortable, out of ourselves, into a place where we can be open to new perspectives, ideas, points of view. In such a place, we are able to grow and be transformed.
How does this connect with the experience of suffering?
Well in suffering we undergo great pain. In such moments, we can choose how we face that pain. We can choose to put up walls, to push others away, to become more rigid and hard. This is a path which builds bitterness, anger, and resentment.
We can also choose the path of the great spiritual masters like Jesus, like Rumi, like Siddhartha Gautama… They found a way to use their experience of great pain as a way, when their hearts were broken, they became broken open to life. They used their spiritual practices to transform this pain not into bitterness but compassion, a deeper identification with all around them who were hurting, struggling, and vulnerable. In choosing such a path, they paved a way for each of us.
May we find the courage to answer the call of the Lord’s Prayer to engage in such openness, this day and always.
Your progressive redneck preacher,