A Meditation for Ash Wednesday
February 13, 2013
My parents were role models of apologizing. I give them a lot of credit for being willing to apologize, not just to other people, but to their children. They were never too proud or too full of their own authority as parents to say they were sorry to my siblings and me.
They both had stressful and taxing jobs, physically and mentally. They did what every parent does. They worked to keep food on the table, a roof over our heads and clothes on our backs. They paid the bills and maintained the house. They made sure we not only had the basic necessities of life, they also paid for all the extra stuff we did – piano lessons, guitar lessons, band, orchestra, soccer, school activities. The list goes on and on. So I know they got stressed out. And in spite of the fact that they were raising three brilliant and impeccably behaved children (especially me) who never gave them a moment’s trouble or worry (especially me), that stress would cause them to sometimes get angry with us. Sometimes they would even overreact. But they never hesitated to apologize. More than once I heard “I’m sorry” from my parents. And they meant it.
My parents taught me the importance of being able to say, “I’m sorry.” They taught me that being willing to admit to wrongdoing on my part was an important aspect of growing up, accepting responsibility and being accountable for what I do and what I don’t do.
I didn’t think that much about this when I was a kid, but as a parent I realize how important it is to be willing to say this to my children. I get stressed. I overreact. I’m wrong. I’m sorry.
Psalm 51, the psalm that we will sing in just a few minutes, is one of the penitential psalms. There are maybe only seven of these kinds of psalms. There are lots of psalms that give praise, thanksgiving or ask God for deliverance from enemies, but this is a psalm that asks for deliverance from self. We are our own worst enemy. It is a psalm that says “I’m sorry.”
Attributed to King David, this psalm is his apology to God. It is connected to his confrontation with the prophet Nathan. David has had an affair with Bathsheba, gotten her pregnant, had her husband, Uriah, killed in battle and Nathan has confronted him with all of it. It is David’s turn to ask for forgiveness, to say, “I’m sorry.”
In discussing this psalm, the scholars at WorkingPreacher.org made the comment that one of the marks of a mature Christian is the ability to say, “I’m sorry,” to admit wrongdoing and to ask for forgiveness – not only from God but from family and friends. We need to be willing to be accountable.
Along with that, the WorkingPreacher folk said that another mark of a mature Christian is the ability to accept forgiveness. In my experience, that is infinitely harder to do. My parents were exemplary in their ability to apologize, but I know for a fact they’re not so good about accepting forgiveness. Neither am I. How often do I mentally and emotionally beat myself up for everything I’ve done wrong in my life – certainly when it comes to my own children, I periodically examine every mistake I’ve made, every cross word I’ve uttered and I feel the shame all over again. I’m pretty sure that any emotional baggage they carry, any problems they have are all my doing. I convince myself that no amount of apologizing could ever make up for the mistakes I’ve made, as a parent and as a person.
So I carry guilt like a mantle on my shoulders. I know my parents carry it as well. In fact I think it is a far greater, more widespread burden than most of us realize or will admit. We are weighed down with guilt. The church traditionally has been excellent at reinforcing that. But is that what this night or this season is really supposed to be about? I know that we often give up something for Lent, and this is a season that’s meant for simpler living and reflection, but isn’t it also a season to recognize that we are forgiven?
Radio personality Paul Harvey had a catch line in his broadcasts about “the rest of the story.” Well we know the rest of the story, don’t we? We know where Lent ends. I don’t say that as a way to advocate skipping blithely through Lent or ignoring the harsh reality of the cross. We can’t get to resurrection without the cross. But I also don’t see Lent as a time for self-flagellation. It seems to me that Lent is about learning a little more how to live as people who are forgiven.
When I was in my internship year during seminary and going through a difficult time with understanding what it meant to be forgiven, a wise mentor in the church asked me if I believed that God forgives me. I replied, “Yes, absolutely.” “Well,” he said, “if you believe God forgives you then how can you not forgive yourself? Isn’t that putting you above God?”
What does it mean to live as people who are forgiven? If we accept forgiveness, from God, from others and from ourselves, maybe we are better able to be joyful. Thankful. Maybe it means that we’re kinder. Maybe it means that we forgive more. Maybe it means that we love more.
So tonight and throughout Lent let us confess what we must confess and apologize for what we’ve done wrong. Let us not be hesitant about saying were sorry. Let us be sincere in our penitence. But let us also embrace the truth that forgiveness that is ours. Let us accept it. So that as we live more fully as a forgiven people we may also increase in love. Tonight, throughout Lent and in all times and places, let us rejoice. We are forgiven! Let all God’s children say, “Amen.”