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.

 

A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey, Chapter 1: All Is Not Well (Psalm 120)

For an introduction to this series, click here

This post is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday June 2nd at St Peter’s Church, Mowbray, Cape Town. This focuses on the first of the Psalms Of Ascents, Psalm 120. It’s best to read that first, and have it open next to you as you read the rest of the post.

Every journey starts with a decision. A decision to set out. That’s as true for the journey to work as it is the journey to the grocery store as it is the journey we might take as we seek to follow God. The decisions in the first two cases are more obviously apparent – I need to go to work; I need some milk. Perhaps less so in the last one – our journey of following God. What sets us out on that journey?

Often it’s the realisation that something is not right. That something may be in me, in others, the world around me or some combination thereof; but the knowledge that something significant which affects us is not right sets us off. It may set us off to follow God for the first time; it may set us off on a journey of recommitment; it may set us off on a journey to do something. Whichever it is, it upsets us. It discomforts us. It causes us pain.

Pain is rarely welcomed with open arms. It is essential, though. In our bodies pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong and we need to do something about it. We get the treatment we need. Similarly when we realise something is not right with our souls and/or the world around us, that is painful and destabilising. So we do something about it. That something may be helpful; it may not. It may be pretending the problem doesn’t exist. It may be expressing the problem as that of someone else. It may be so many things. Whatever it is, the realisation that all is not well is not an easy one. Those who journeyed to Jerusalem to worship in the temple started their journey by reflecting on, praying or singing Psalm 120. Which is the outpouring of someone who knows all too well that something is wrong.

We open with a cry of distress. The writer is being lied about. Someone is spreading gossip. This is not OK. If you’ve ever been the victim of gossip, you know how painful it is. You feel powerless. You feel violated. You wonder what people you had thought to be close to you are thinking. You can shout the truth all you like, but you can do nothing to make people listen; secretly you wonder if the more you shout, the more people will think you have something to hide. Verses 1 and 2 of Psalm 120 show us that the writer is in precisely that situation. It’s not the whole picture, though. She (the unknown writer) has also known that the God to whom she prays has come through in the past, so it’s worth taking this to Him this time:

1 I call out to the Lord when I’m in trouble,
and he answers me.
2 Lord, save me from people whose lips tell lies…

God has come through in the past, so she has no reason to suspect that He won’t come through this time.

That’s the first part. The second can seem like an abrupt change of gear. From the cry of distress to cries for vengeance. From directly addressing God there is a shift; still directed at God, but now in verses 3-4 the writer says what she would love to see happen to those who gossip.

She doesn’t hold back. It’s fire and brimstone stuff. The lies being spread are arrows which have wounded; so they are returned; thick chunks of hard wood coal from the trunk of the broom tree fall on them. Make no mistake, this is a brutal plea for vengeance.

I’ve craved the same. When I’ve been lied about, when unjustified assumptions have been made about me, when rumours to which I’ve contributed nothing have spread like wildfire, when people who claimed to respect me have passed on the unsubstantiated, I’ve imagined vengeance. We all do something similar. The writer of this Psalm is doing just that. She doesn’t hold back in what she seeks … but she leaves it with the one who can do something. She does not hold back … but neither does she hold on to her right for vengeance.

It’s amazing what you can pray, isn’t it? How many angry outbursts at the seemingly irrelevant, how many ‘minor’ health problems, how many ruptured relationships might be avoided if we prayed similarly to verses 3 and 4 here?

So we move on, to the third and final section. Verses 5 to 7. Strange, exotic sounding places. Meshech – beyond the Black Sea, modern-day Georgia, way to the north of the Jerusalem area in which the writer found herself. Kedar, the Arabian desert to the south and east. Lest we forget, to the west is the sea, the symbol of chaos and evil. This is not literal; it is poetry. Clearly the poet could not be in both Meshech and Kedar. She is surrounded. This is a way of saying … I’m hemmed in by those who oppose you, God. They surround me. I cannot escape. This has gone on too long. I want peace. They want war. 

And so it ends. This first step on the journey ends not with resolution but with a cry of constriction; with claustrophobia and the lone voice for peace. All is not well.

There are 14 more steps to go.

The journey starts with the realisation that I can be the one about whom others write verses 3 and 4. I lie. I offend. I hurt. I offend people, and I offend God. In my natural state, I offend God. I may not like this. It hurts to say it. But it’s true.

That is the beginning of the journey. If I accept it, I seek help. And the help … is astonishing. That despite my offense, God seeks me out. God finds me. God lavishes love on me. God dies for me.  My offense does not trump His love. Quite the reverse, in fact.

It’s called repentance. One of those horrible, black-leather-bound religious words. It means turning away. Recognising I’m on the wrong journey and choosing to follow the one God leads me on instead.

If I’m in pain, if I’m aching, if I’m disturbed … do I need to change the journey I’m on? Do I need to walk another way? This, as Eugene Peterson says in his book on these Psalms, ‘is not an emotion, it is not feeling sorry for your sins. It is is a decision. It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own God … and it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth’. 

Repent and believe. The first step on the journey. And one to repeat, as discipline, as slate-cleaner.

This pain come other ways, too. To those who daily repent, the painful realisation can dawn that something is not right around me as well as in me and I am invited on a journey to co-operate with God and do something about it. Housing, disease, poverty, abuse, corruption, environmental decay, war … so much. For each it will be different.

Will you step out the door? Will you embark on a journey? Will you invite discontent?

Will I?

“…there [is] only one Road; that it [is] like a great river; its springs [are] at every doorstep and every path its tributary. It’s a dangerous business, going out of your door … You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no telling where you might be swept off to”

(The Lord Of The Rings, by J R R Tolkein)

This post is adapted from the notes of a sermon I preached at St Peter’s, Mowbray, Cape Town on Sunday 2nd June 2013. It’s not an exact text of the sermon as I don’t preach from a full text.

Also in this series: Introduction:  A Guidebook For A Tricky Journey

Argo

This post contains plot spoilers for Argo.

Predictability can be an unpredictably lazy criticism. If a film feels too safe, if the plot’s on rails from which it can’t deviate, if you know the end from the beginning not because of omniscience but because you know the reality the film is based on, if it’s simply evident from the start what’s going to happen – all of these can be appropriate reasons for criticising a film. Not always, though; certainly not in the case of Argo.

The film is the third directorial outing for Ben Affleck; his first (Gone Baby Gone) was, for me, one of the most underrated films of recent years. Argo is taken from the recently declassified true story of the rescue of six fugitive American diplomatic staff from the chaos of Iran in 1980. The cover story under which the rescue was undertaken by a CIA-Canadian partnership was that of scouting Iran for locations in which to shoot an entirely fabricated movie production (the fake movie being ‘Argo’).

This isn’t a story I knew. I knew some of the broader context, but nothing of the details – for me, that’s a period of history that often falls into vague ignorance on account of being too young to take an interest at the time and it being too recent for much study. I thought I knew how the story would play out – I assumed some predictable plotting, my possibly naive reasoning being that if this hadn’t ended well the film wouldn’t have been made. In fact the reality is, on one level, even more predictable. The mechanics of the plot play out with precious few of the clichés you’d expect under fictional circumstances. If that feels like a spoiler, don’t let it put you off – with all the predictability, it’s funny, insightful and razor-wire tense.

The cast’s performances are low-key and self-effacing – Affleck especially, whose role demands a kind of broken anonymity which he pulls off brilliantly. It’s with these performances, and a script which gently sets context and propels plot, that tension gradually creeps up on you. You feel – in a good way – like the proverbial frog in a kettle – only latterly aware that for two hours you’ve been in the grip of a slowly rising tension from which you can’t escape even if you know what’s coming. That included me and my wife with our lightly educated guesses at the conclusion as well as the unknown couple next to us who evidently knew the story well if their pre-film conversation was anything to go by. The female half of that couple kept shifting in her seat as the film neared a climax, positively gasping with tension despite her proclaimed knowledge of the story. The script peppers wit throughout the film without ever breaking the dramatic moment. My favourite exchange? CIA strategists discussing if they’re going to approve the fake film (‘The Hollywood Option’) plan to gain the fugitives’ liberation:

Boss  – ‘Don’t we have a better bad idea than this?’

Employee – ‘This the best bad idea we have, sir. By far’.

Economic, plot advancing, and I’m still chuckling to myself about it 2 days later.

The most moving aspect of the film snuck in under my radar in the closing minutes. Ben Affleck’s character receives the news he’s going to be lauded with the Intelligence trade’s highest honour for his efforts to rescue the diplomatic staff. There’s a catch  – because the mission still, even after completion, bears such a high degree of secrecy, he’d receive the award at a ceremony with no-one else present; and he would immediately have to return the award. No-one could know. No-one could then have predicted that a future President (Clinton) would be able to declassify the story; it could easily have remained untold indefinitely. As his boss tells him, ‘If we’d wanted applause, we’d have joined the circus’.

It struck me to the core. Wouldn’t he want recognition from the country he’d served so bravely? Even if applause isn’t granted, surely he’d have longed for it? As a Christian and as a leader, there are times when I feel the need to do (or not do) something. Sometimes I do the right thing, sometimes I don’t. On the occasions I do get it more right than wrong, my heart suddenly yearns for approval, applause, recognition, validation. I can’t talk about it though – to ensure confidentiality, to facilitate growth or simply because gaining recognition would defeat the purpose of doing it in the first place. I can suddenly move into a horrible version of jealousy at those who seem to get more recognition for doing the opposite (forgetting, of course, that I have no idea what God may be calling them to). Then I’m reminded of the audience of One who sees everything – my soft seduction into sin as well as my occasional good deed. To the One, I’m invited to keep open accounts. To confess, to tell things to, to ask for help and understanding. The words of my Biblical namesake help me. David – God-seeking, God-pleasing, adulterer, murderer, leader, David:

Search me, God, and know my heart;
    test me and know my anxious thoughts.
 See if there is any offensive way in me,
    and lead me in the way everlasting. 

(Psalm 139 verses 23-24, NIV)

David, a leader not of 60 people in a service on a Sunday morning, but millions in battle and politics; David, a broken failure who pleased God, kept clean lines with God, knows he’s been heard, been seen, is forgiven and receives divine approval. David, for whom, on good days, the applause of One was enough.

May we who follow Jesus, may we who try to help others do so too, may we all have similar good days.

I rated this film 9/10 on imdb.com and 4.5/5 on rottentomatoes.com