What Can I Do to Make It Better?

Seth Patterson October 21, 2018

Scriptures Psalm 13; Micah 6:1–8

Hear what the Lord says:
Rise, plead your case before the mountains,
and let the hills hear your voice.

Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the Lord,
and you enduring foundations of the earth;
for God has a controversy with the people,
and will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
In what have I wearied you? Answer me!

For I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
and redeemed you from the house of slavery;
and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

O my people, remember now what King Balak of Moab devised,
what Balaam son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
that you may know the saving acts of the Lord.”

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?

Shall I arrive with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will God be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?

Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”

God has told you, O human, what is good;
and what does God require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

We often hold this last phrase as if it is conclusive. It has been put on a bumper sticker. Yet it turns out that it is actually an unresolved piece of conversation between God and the people of Israel. The conversation begins with God bringing a suit against the people of Israel. One commentator[1] said, you can almost hear the hurt, wonderment and pleading in God’s opening questions: “what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you?” The God that saved them from Egypt—from bondage and slavery!—had become burdensome.

There are no threats in this conversation, no ultimatums. This is God pleading with the people, appealing to their history together, their shared experiences and their covenantal relationship. God is hurt, God feels unheard and is asking the people for repentance. The people seem to hear God and begin to list all of the things that they think God may want, increasing in volume and desperation until they offer their own children!

But Micah, now again speaking on behalf of God, stands with many other prophetic voices, and reminds the people that God is more interested in the way that people live their lives than in their strict religious practices.[2] “And what does God require of you? But to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God.”

God may have had the last words, but this particular conversation is far from over. God has asked us to do something and the next part of this conversation is on us. We need to respond in the ways that we do—or do not do—justice, the ways that we act—or do not act—in kindness, and how we walk humbly—or not—with God. It has been our turn to speak in this conversation and God is listening and waiting for our response. We said that we were sorry. We asked what we could do to make it better, and God told us. Now, it is on us to keep the conversation alive and show our willingness to stay in relationship with God.

I’m sorry. What can I do to make it better? This second part of the apology was made real to me when I participated in a restorative justice class at the Stillwater prison. One offender spoke about how he continued to feel terrible about his actions despite trying to say that he was sorry. It was only after he began to say “What can I do to make it better?” that he was able to begin a process of healing. This is repentance, which is our focus today in this month of talking about healing. Last week we talked about confession, which is to say that you are sorry, to admit that you did wrong. Repentance is the next step to forgiveness. This is when we stop, face the harmed person or people we have hurt and ask them what can we do to make this better?

One night a few months ago, I was bathing my 4-year-old daughter. Normally she loves baths but not this time! I was trying to wash her hair and, uncharacteristically, she was thrashing and screaming and throwing water at me. I would stop and say, “Please use your words,” but she would just cry and splash. She was very upset, but she couldn’t go to bed with a head full of shampoo. I began thinking about what would be an appropriate consequence for this. She was still angry as I toweled her off, got her into her pajamas and handed her a toothbrush. Just as I was about to tell her the consequences for her actions, she took the toothbrush out of her mouth, looked at me and said, “I’m sorry Papi. What can I do to make it better?” I was floored. We had tried this two-part apology before, but she had never done it without prompting. Just like that, she confessed and she repented. She apologized and asked how she could make it better. Our relationship was able to begin a process of repair right then and there. I told her she could give me a big hug and to please not throw a tantrum in the bathtub. She agreed. We hugged. The hurt began to heal. The conversation was able to continue. Her harm was completely unintentional, but even accidental harm requires confession and repentance.

I could see in her eyes that this was hard for her to do. I knew from my own experience how hard this was. When we confess, we are still able to dictate the terms of our own apology. We can easily turn an apology into blame: I’m sorry . . . that you got upset by this. I’m sorry . . . that you misunderstood me. I’m sorry . . . but I’m not really going to do anything differently now.

But an act of repentance is so much harder. We open ourselves to the possibility that the other person is not yet ready to answer us. We open ourselves to the possibility that the harmed person has been too hurt. We open ourselves to the possibility of maybe being asked to change in ways that we do not want to change. Repentance is incredibly vulnerable work. Think back to the times in your life that you have had to repent, when you asked how you can make it better. What strength did that take for you to do that? What risks did you take?

Yet the fruits of repentance are great. To ask what I can do to make it better is to stay in relationship with the other person. It is a humbling of your own needs and wants to the needs and wants of another. It is a breaking down of your own need for control. The result is frequently a stronger relationship and likely that you have changed for the better. Oftentimes personal growth and meaning-making comes from the vulnerability in repentance.

That is why repentance is a practice that we continue to work on. Since we are humans, each of us will continue to hurt other people, purposely and accidentally, and each of us will have a choice on how we confess and how we repent.

There are times though, that we individually and collectively need to practice repentance for actions that we may have not perpetrated ourselves. There are times when we need to ask how I can make something better for a harm that was done by a group I am a part of or for a harmful system that has benefitted me unfairly. I am personally thinking here of how I can repent for the sins of racism and white supremacy, for the pains brought on by patriarchy, for the hurts imposed by a hegemonic idea of gender and sexuality. How can I, in my part, do something to help make it better? People of color, women and LGBTQ folk are asking me to repent. How do I open myself to what they say and then do what they ask to be able to make it better?

The Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally means “to have a change of mind.” In order to repent, we need to be open to the possibility of having our mind changed, to the possibility of having ourselves changed. My daughter had to be open to changing her behavior. In order to repent for my systemic benefits, I have to be open to changing the ways in which I live, act and connect in the world.

Not only can each of us practice this two-part process of confession and repentance in our own lives and in the systems that we unfairly benefit from, but also as a church community. Plymouth is being asked right now to participate in a conversation in which confession and repentance are being requested. Much like God came to the people of Israel, members of our church and members of our larger community are asking us to join in a conversation about our embroideries that hang in Guild Hall. These embroideries were made with deep love over several decades by generous members of Plymouth. They are aesthetically beautiful, with a deep commitment to a craft that is disappearing from our culture. Tour groups visit our church in order to see these pieces of needled precision. We have honored their presence and stitched them into the very life of our community.

While the images on these embroideries were meticulously researched and studied, some members of our many communities are asking us into a conversation about what some of these images may mean to those who feel misrepresented or underrepresented. Paula, Beth and I received an email to this effect recently from a member of Plymouth, one who is a very regular Sunday and Wednesday attendee, a member of a board and one who has raised children here. This person has given me permission to quote an excerpt:

“I know that as a Church we want more than anything to be welcoming. But we are being told again and again that some of these images are hurtful and exclusionary. I myself take responsibility for ignoring it for so long and choosing to look at what I like about Plymouth, rather than what my role is in perpetuating the myth by choosing to look the other way. We have been told again and again by the very people we are reaching out to that they do not feel welcome. It is not ok that we advertise ways in which we are supporting the Hiawatha encampment while still hanging art that depicts some of the very injustices that led to the cycle of addiction and poverty that likely then led to the homelessness of the very people we are feeding. I want to leave you all with one of the basic teachings from the Ojibwe culture that my family tries to follow. It is called the Seven Grandfathers teachings or gifts. Those gifts were Humility, Wisdom, Truth, Bravery, Honesty, Respect and Love. I have been thinking of these teachings as I discern my role, and how my family should move forward with this issue. The native community has offered us wisdom. We need to be humble enough to accept it and admit that we may be wrong, we need to be brave enough to do something about it, we need to be honest with ourselves about our roles in perpetuating this issue and we need to speak truthfully about it with the native community in order to show them love and respect.”

As this person continues to discern what this means to them, our response to this invitation is critical. Written in the guest book that sits next to the embroidery is the following from our extended community:

“Our native brothers and sisters have testified to the pain that this history has caused. I honor the faithful intent of the many hands that created this embroidery, but I also value and honor the voices of those who hold the original claim to the land on which we stand. In Christian love I ask that you honor them and take it down.”

Just like God invited the people of Israel into a conversation, we are being asked to participate in a conversation about something deeply held in our church. What we do with this conversation is up to us as a community—but it is imperative that we join the conversation. To be clear, joining this conversation is not an act of giving or receiving blame. Rather joining this conversation is a chance for us to listen and discern. We need to be willing to really hear what is being said so that we may experience metanoia, a change of mind. Inadvertently, we have hurt people and we should be prepared to ask what we can do to make it better. God has asked us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God. How shall we respond?

We will have a series of three facilitated conversations in Guild Hall during the Sundays at 10 time on Nov. 4, 11 and 18. These conversations will be facilitated by Paula, Beth and me within a process of covenantal love and commitment to one another. The purpose is not to decide on a course of action, but rather to begin a conversation that is vulnerable and potentially profound. We are not practiced at this yet, but we can honor each other and listen with love and compassion.

May we work together as a loving community to join this conversation we have been invited into. May we listen with openness and allow ourselves the ability to have our minds changed. May we ask how we can make better the unintentional hurt we have caused. May we stay in relationship together and respond in a spirit of abundance and love. To heal the relationship between God and people requires repentance. To heal the relationships between people requires repentance. To act justly and love kindness and walk humbly with God requires repentance. What can we do to make it better?

[1] The New Interpreters Bible, volume VII, p. 579

[2] Ibid., p. 580