Sorry, just sorry – a reflection at the start of Lent

It was one of those emails that I’d rather not have had to send. I’m not very good at raising difficult issues at the best of times, and doing so by email is not a helpful way to do it. But the issue was playing on my mind, and I needed to say something about it. I wasn’t expecting to see the person concerned for a while; I knew if I let this run until then my bad habit of assuming the worst would kick in and it would get out of control. So I sent an email that explained what I had heard had happened, and asked for clarification.

The response was swift, and helpful. The person concerned gave a better insight into what had happened, explained the intention hadn’t been to hurt or make life difficult for me, and said sorry. That was kind, and appreciated. Before I had the chance to reply, another email came in from the same sender. The person took it further – it didn’t matter, came the explanation, what the intention had been. What mattered was that wrong had been done, and that the wrong was owned and addressed. If the first email had been helpful, this second one caused my shoulders to lighten  – and I hadn’t even realised I’d been carrying something. I felt even warmer towards the person concerned than I had before this whole thing started; I knew that next time I saw the person concerned I would feel no anxiety.

This caused me to think about how I say sorry – which I’m called on to do every day. My sorry does not measure up to the one I have just related. My sorry is not as powerful, as life-giving as the one I received. What marked this one from which I benefitted as special and good? For me two things stood out – which are rarely features of my apologies.

First, the person owned responsibility. There was no prevarication with what the intention had been, there was no asking me to bear my side of the fault (though as I discovered, I did need to take some responsibility myself). There was an explanation offered – but that was by way of reason and shared insight, not excuse. Responsibility was owned, and it was unequivocal.

Second, the person didn’t use intention as a get-out. If your leg is broken by a bad car driver, it doesn’t matter that the driver didn’t mean to drive badly. What matters is that your leg was broken – it’s not going to get any better because it was an accident. No, your leg needs to be mended; and in this instance the one who broke it can help it mend.

The fact that the apology I received contained both of these elements (and more besides) meant that hurt was addressed, and relationship restored. It also enabled me to apologise too, as I discovered I needed to. What started as potentially awkward and could have spiralled out of control was nipped in the bud, and transfigured into something refreshing and life-giving.

A lesson there that will be good for me to employ in my marriage, my parenting, my friendships, my church. I have much to learn on saying sorry.

Today is Ash Wednesday, the start of the Christian season of Lent. This is a time for reflection. A time to recognise our faults and inadequacies and harmful dependencies, admit them before God, receive forgiveness for them and turn away from them to something new and better.

I thought about the way I say sorry to God. Too often it’s like my sorry to people – qualified, hesitant, blame-shifting, self-pitying. Something changes when I do it well. I realise how needy I am, how shallow I am, how much of a failure I am; my hands are emptied and I’m ready to receive what I need. My Christian tradition  – the Anglican tradition  – uses liturgy (prepared prayers) to help me do that. Those prayers put in my mouth words which express my failure, need and utter dependence on God. There is no talk of intention, blame or self-pity. I am forced to take responsibility, and turn away from the behaviour. I’m then free to receive spoken over me words of freedom, forgiveness and refreshing. Saying sorry to God, called confession; and repentance, turning away from the wrong, are often thought of as sad, miserable, life-crushing things to do. Bad for the self-esteem, we may think.

Not so. Quite the opposite, in fact. We find ourselves released from burdens we’re not designed to carry, relationships are restored and hurt is replaced by healing. Make it a choice to do this well – maybe start over Lent, but allow it to become a way of life.

The road to life is marked by a sign marked ‘Sorry, just sorry’. Follow it.