Beth Hoffman Faeth October 27, 2019
Scripture Luke 16:19–31
In the fall of 1990, I entered the Master’s of Divinity program at United Theological Seminary. I was 22 years old and three months earlier had graduated from college with a B.A. in Musical Theater. Minneapolis was a long way from Broadway, where I thought I would be headed, but significant discernment my senior year of college led me to the life-changing decision to enter seminary and continue pondering the possibility of a career in ministry. Many of my college friends were headed in various geographical directions to enter master’s degree programs in their chosen field. It seemed the thing to do, that is to follow a consecutive course of higher education.
I was surprised to discover, in the first few days of classes that memorable fall, that I was the only student in my class to enter seminary directly from college, and I was the youngest student on campus for most of my seminary career. And not only by a few years—the median age of the student population during my time at UTS was 42. What I learned very quickly was that my youthfulness was not an asset. In fact, I was told often that my ideas and perspective could not be taken seriously because I did not have enough life experience. It was difficult to find my voice in that environment and when one is told enough times that they do not bring value to the conversation, one begins to believe it. Especially troubling for me was that many of the professors adopted the same attitude, using “life in the 1960s” as a constant reference point assuming we had all lived through the ’60s and could therefore draw on those past events to give contemporary relevance. When I did try to speak up and speak out and remind those with power that we did not all share the same reference era, I was quickly dismissed. For the first time in my life, I truly felt like I did not matter.
As I have processed this period of my history over the last 25 years, I have regrets. I regret that I did not explore other venues for my seminary education . . . I settled quickly on my choice because well, I really wanted to live in the Twin Cities, and there were few seminary options for progressives. I regret that I did not find a way to speak truth to power and to challenge my classmates and teachers to recognize their ageism. I regret that I made the choice to become invisible as a way to protect myself—ask folks whom I attended seminary with, a couple of them members of Plymouth Church, and they won’t remember me, even though I was an honors student and excelled in my field education. I regret that I did not foster better relationship with those who were allies—seminarians and professors—and let those few know that their affirmation of my presence really mattered to me. They mattered to me.
At the time, the chasm that had been created seemed too wide to bridge, and so instead I focused on completing my studies and getting ordained, so I could leave the classroom and enter the real world. But not surprisingly, real life mimicked the classroom . . . I graduated and was ordained at age 26 and spent years (and sometimes still do) having to prove my competency based on my gender and my age. And yes, that fills me with regret, too. Because I should not have to do that anymore. I should not have had to do that at all.
Regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made. Regret is powerful. Our regrets often expose our most intimate character flaws: greed, anger, malice, resentment, pettiness. When we consider the events of our life and our relationships and what we could do over again if we had the chance, it speaks to a raw brokenness that exists, at some level within each one of us. When people tell me they have no regrets, I don’t believe them. Every one of us has said and done things that have been hurtful, have made mistakes that carried huge ramifications, have made decisions that cost us dearly. If we move forward with no regrets, how would we ever expect our future to be any different? If we cannot recognize that which we regret, aren’t we setting our life course to look like our past rather than believing in the possibility of change? Regret is what allows us to learn from our mistakes and it is essential to our decision-making because, at its best, regret helps us move forward on a different path. But that does not mean that regret is welcome or comfortable.
There are people who study regret for a living. Dr. Amy Sommerville runs The Regret Lab at Miami University in Ohio. The research in the lab is “focused on understanding when and why people think about ‘what might have been,’ and the impact of these thoughts in applied, everyday contexts. These thoughts have important influences on behavior, and also drive the experience of regret, the negative emotion stemming from the realization that one’s actions could have resulted in better outcomes than actually occurred. (The Regret Lab) examines what regrets individuals report both in real life and lab contexts, and the research has informed theoretical work focused on the functional nature of regret, and the role of opportunity in the strength of regret.” [i]
Researcher Neal Roese of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is a leader in the field of regret research. His studies have shown that regret was rated more favorably than unfavorably, primarily because of its informational value in motivating corrective action.
Interestingly, regret was rated highest of a list of negative emotions in fulfilling five functions:
- making sense of the world
- avoiding future negative behaviors
- gaining insight
- achieving social harmony
- improving ability to approach desired opportunities (presumably because we regret past passivity) [ii]
Therefore, a heaping dollop of regret helps us to learn about ourselves, but only if we use the regret to influence our future actions. Does that make you feel any better?
A first read of our parable today might have us conclude that this is another story of the divide between the wealthy and the poor. There is a rich man who lives in a fancy house with fancy clothes, who eats fancy food and drives fancy cars. We have heard this before! Even his gates, keeping the ordinary folks at bay, are fancy. Then we have the poor man, a man who is anything but fancy, hanging out by the rich man’s gates, waiting for some kind of charity. Some food, water, some notice. He has been there so long he has developed sores on his body, which the neighborhood dogs come and lick. Not a pleasant sight. Both men die, and in the upside-down world of the gospel, the rich man goes to hell and the poor man goes to heaven.
Life is no longer fancy for the rich man, but even so his expectations are. He demands the poor man to give him some water, and Abraham and Sarah, now saints in light and who are moderating this conversation, practically laugh. Lazarus will no longer ever have need, he will always know comfort, he no longer must wait for another to show mercy. No longer will the rich man receive any reward. The rich man pleads the case of his brothers who are still alive. They might have time to change their destiny if the dead prophets would just warn them, using the rich man himself as an example. Abraham and Sarah just shake their heads in refusal, declaring that the brothers have all the teachers they need on earth—scriptures, the lessons from the prophets. If that isn’t enough, they say, nothing—not even a resurrection of the Messiah—is going to change their ways.
To me, this is not a story about the chasm between social classes. The chasm, scripture states, is fixed so that no one can cross to the other side. This is not a literal chasm. It is a chasm of regret. If the rich man knew he would live out eternity in the fiery pit of hell, he may have lived his life on earth differently. Or not. But his life choices certainly dictate his regret. One of the things that impacts me most about this parable is the rich man, who remains nameless in this version, knew the name of the poor man at his gates: Lazarus. That means that he knew Lazarus was there, waiting for help, and the rich man intentionally chose not to reach out. Somehow that makes it even more regretful—the rich man saw the poor man, knew who he was, and make the decision not to offer him any food or water, any respite from his suffering. Because Lazarus did not matter. Which really, is the greatest regret of all.
Ten days ago, I did something I rarely do. I went to a concert at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The tickets were purchased months ago because one of my favorite artists was coming to town . . . Sara Bareilles. I have been a fan since her first hit “Love Song” was released in 2007, and she captivated my heart completely when she wrote the songs and lyrics to the hit Broadway musical Waitress in 2016. I had prepared myself to get emotional during her show, because her lyrics speak to me as a reflection of my own life. I was thrilled when she sang a suite of numbers from “Waitress” but one, in particular, made tears flow.
I could find the whole meaning of life in those sad eyes
They’ve seen things that you never quite say, but I hear
Come out of hiding, I’m right here beside you
And I’ll stay there as long as you let me
Because you matter to me
Simple and plain and not much to ask from somebody
You matter to me
I promise you do, you, you matter too
I promise you do, you see?
You matter to me
I wept because I was sitting next to my new love, knowing that only recently I did not believe I would ever matter to another in such a way again in my life. And I wept because I realized that those words are the antidote to any human fissure. To look at another and proclaim: “You matter to me”—this is the way we bridge the chasm. The chasm in our church, the chasm in our personal lives, the chasm in the world. Even when we do not agree, even when we believe in different outcomes, even when we are unsure of the very next decision we will need to make, we must boldly look upon one another and trust that the one created in God’s image matters. The rich man’s sin was not his wealth, it was his unwillingness to see Lazarus as a human being, given by God the same rights as the rich man. Because Lazarus did not matter to the rich man, the rich man would suffer regret all of his days.
One thing I will never regret is becoming a minister, because the last 25 years has blessed me with thousands of encounters with people who matter, people who have shared with me the sacredness of their own story. Many have spoken their regrets to me, and never have these confessions been about making more money, spending more time working, or acquiring more possessions. Almost always these regrets are articulated as broken relationships, painful fractures with family or friends, not telling another how they feel, how much they love. Some people regret not taking more risks, not boldly living their convictions, not letting their faith dictate their actions. But always, these emotionally charged conversations come back to relationship. Because it is all about relationship. Harriet Beecher Stowe said, “The bitterest tears shed over graves are for words left unsaid and deeds left undone.”
The time is now to bridge the chasm. We have welcomed new members today who need to know they matter. We have people in our church who are hurting and need to know that they matter. We have folks in our community, waiting for a welcome, needing to know that they matter. Last week someone told me that it is stressful to simply be in this space, our church. This is a sanctuary, my friends, a place for connection and kindness and the experience of God’s presence. A place that may challenge, but in ways that are productive and encourage spiritual growth and practice—not stress; not foreboding. Let us not move forward with regret. You matter here. We must continue to remind one another that there is a place and a space for everyone in this sanctuary. There will be no regret in that.
Please look at your neighbor in the pew and say: “You matter to me.”
“Simple and plain and not much to ask from somebody.”
Yet it could make all the difference.
You matter to me.
[ii] (Melanie Greenburg,PhD; “The Psychology of Regret”; PsychologyToday.com)