Love Life Live Advent – 22nd December – Say Sorry

Today’s action: What do you need to say sorry for, or to let go of before Christmas? Give it to God.

Christmas is a time when we sing of ‘Peace on earth’ but can often experience the opposite – busyness, worry about money, and visits from relatives can all create tension and make tempers run high, just at a time when we most desire peace of heart and mind.

If there’s someone you really need to say sorry to, think about how best to do it.  Sometimes a handwritten letter goes a long way, sometimes a face to face apology is what’s needed.  Giving a gift, especially something home-made that needed some time and effort, can be a powerfully helpful part making peace with someone.

Often, though, it’s just a general sense that time has left us a bit worn and scuffed, or simply need to make peace with ourselves about the past year.  It can help to do something (as well as think it) to let go of any regrets.  Why not try one of these ideas?

  • On a cold day, you can breathe onto a window pane, and then write in the condensation. Try writing something down that you want to leave behind, then as you give your thoughts to God, wipe it off and spend a moment finding something beautiful in what you can see out of the window.
  • Write down your regret on a small piece of paper and (very carefully) burn it in a candle flame as you offer your thoughts to God. Spend a moment enjoying the warmth and light of the candle flame.
  • Take an object that looks as if it doesn’t have much left to offer (a dead twig, a small screwed up ball of paper etc, a dried up leaf), and give it a new lease of life by spraying it gold – attach a loop of thread to it and hang it on your tree – as you do so, offer yourself to God with all your faults and failings as well as all your gifts, and ask him to do something wonderful with you this year.
  • Hold a shiny Christmas tree bauble in your hand, so that you can see your face reflected in it. Think about what you see – the things about yourself that make you happy, and the things you’d like to change. As you look at your own reflection, ask God to help you see yourself as he sees you.

Love life live lent (Ash Wednesday) – Say sorry

It’s possible that I apologise too much.  People sometimes say that to me. Maybe they even think that I don’t have anything to apologise for.  Maybe they think that someone in my position ought to put on a stronger face, not admit to weakness or failure.  Maybe they’ve just pre-forgiven me for whatever it was I did (or, more usually, failed to do) and don’t feel a need for me to do my bit….

But you know what? I’m not going to stop.

I’m also not going to stop, because while I am profoundly grateful for the people who forgive me for the same things again and again and again, the moment I take their forgiveness for granted, I’ve started to take them for granted too.  My missed deadlines mean someone else has to work later, or longer, or has to do their bit at the last minute when they (unlike me) are not natural last-minute people. My ‘sorry’ is an acknowledgement that my failure hurts other people, even if only in minor ways.   It’s an act of empathy, and I don’t ever want to lose that.

I’m not going to stop, because as long as I’m in the habit of being apologetic, then hopefully when it comes to the big things –  you know, the things that are actually really really hard to own up to, the things I want to hide, and hope nobody ever finds out about – I’ll be all nicely warmed up and the repentance will flow easily from my heart right out of my mouth.

I’m not going to stop, because although sometimes I repent and repent and the bridge remains broken, other times, by the grace of God, the person I realise ages ago that I’d hurt and finally pluck up courage to visit not only accepts my apology,  but also sits down with me over a pot of tea and a plate of biscuits, and shows me that I can be promoted to the rank of ‘friend’.  Real forgiveness is too wonderful an experience  to risk missing out on.

And I’m not going to stop, because saying sorry and meaning it is a way of  just starting the process of cleaning out the dark and dirty corners of the soul.  If my soul is a dark and cluttered cupboard, the ‘Sorry’ is that moment when I have the courage to open the cupboard door, with God standing next to me, so that he can turn to me and say, ‘Can I give you a hand clearing this lot up?’

Ash Wednesday sermon 2013

What do we actually do today?

For want of a better way of putting it, I think we turn ourselves inside out. For one day, we show each other and ourselves what we’re really like. We put a messy cross on our foreheads to say, publicly, ‘I have mess. I have sin. I am not right. I need help.’

Today is about honesty. About admitting that we’re not perfect. Admitting that there is much in us which, left unchecked, will prove destructive for us, for those around us, and perhaps beyond, too.

Ash Wednesday can be seen as a service that condemns, that concentrates on what is wrong.  But as some of you may have noticed from what I tend to preach, I have this unrelenting urge to find good news in things, and I want to find good news in the ash, too.   When you start looking, there’s lots of it.

The first bit is that this service doesn’t work if only one person comes.  If I was on my own tonight (which I might well have been, given the snow), it would not work. Why? Because the ash cross is a great leveller. It says, my sin is my own, but I am not alone in being a sinner.  It’s precisely what we see in today’s gospel reading: the woman taken in adultery is not alone. Her sin is her own, but she is not alone in having sinned. That’s the first bit of good news.

The second bit of good news is that although this is the day when we tell ourselves and each other than we are messy people, full of dirt and sin and shame, the fact is that God already knew.  The fact that we are sinful, that humanity as a whole is sinful, is not news to God. He sees us for who we are – perhaps God is the only one in the universe who truly sees us as we really are, inside – and he still loves us. Infinitely. That’s the second bit of good news.

The third bit of good news is that when we receive the ash on our foreheads we are told ‘remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.’  We hear these words and we might remember the second account of creation in Genesis, in which God lovingly puts his hands in the earth and shapes a human being out of the dirt, breathing life into its nostrils.  The fact that we are dust is testament to God’s creativity, and God’s ability to bring life out of that which seems dead.  God has done it once. He can do it again. And again.  That’s the third bit of good news.

The fourth bit of good news is that the ash cross is tangible, and visible. It feels real.  It’s an action which changes us on the inside – the church would call what we do tonight ‘sacramental’.  The classic definition of a sacrament is an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace, whereas the ash cross is almost the opposite: an outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible lack of grace!  It means that our ‘sorry’ isn’t empty, but feels real.  And that reality is something that needs to be carried forward into our thoughts and words and actions beyond our repentance tonight. The ash reminds us that what we do, our action, the things that people see when they look at us, and what they hear when we speak – these things shape who we are inside as well as changing the world around us. We have a lent’s worth of actions ahead of us that can help us become more who God created us to be.  We may not be able to make good on all our past sins, but our actions and words can bring us closer to being who we are meant to be.  That’s the fourth bit of good news.

And finally, the fifth bit of good news is that we can wipe the ash off our forehead.  It’s not a brand, there for ever as a reminder that we are sinners. It’s a temporary mark, which rubs off to remind us that we sinners who can be forgiven.  Whether you keep your ash on for the rest of the evening, or wipe it off later in the service, there comes that moment when you remove the sign of your sin.  At school, on ascension day, we draw a cross in glitter on our foreheads – to remind ourselves and each other that we are called to ‘shine as a light in the world to the glory of God the Father’.  It’s a long way to go till Ascension Day, but that commission, to be the body of Christ, to witness to the peace which can, against all the odds, exist between earth and heaven, and to reveal the glory of God, starts now.  That’s the fifth bit of good news.

Love Life Live Lent – Say sorry!

I emailed a wedding couple today, finally sending them their order of service, for which they had been patiently waiting some time.  I am sure I’m not the only vicar in the world who finds the administration of the occasional offices (baptisms, weddings and funerals) sometimes ‘slips away’ and that bits of paper and emails become buried under many other bits of paper and emails.

Hence my apology.

And I do feel better now.

I feel better not only because I said sorry, but because I made good on what I’d done wrong.  The happy couple now have an order of service, and this has no doubt reduced their stress levels and made them happy.

Sometimes an apology is enough on its own, especially if we really, really mean it. And sometimes it’s all we’ve got, if the thing we’ve done wrong has been and gone and there’s no way to ‘make it good.’

My big apology last week was for completely missing Offord Women’s Guild – they always have Evensong on the first Tuesday of the month, and I always take the service and deliver a short homily-type thing, and enjoy tea and biccies afterwards. But last week for some reason I spent most of Tuesday thinking it was Monday, and only realised halfway through the midweek Eucharist on Wednesday that I’d missed the Guild.  Nothing I can do at that point. But I did write an apology on a nice tasteful card (it happened to have a picture of the church on it) by hand, and hand-delivered it to the chairperson of the Guild, on Wednesday, even though the level crossing meant that it took half an hour to do so.  And it felt better then. Until I next forget something….

Because the trouble is that I apologise quite a lot.  Some weeks I seem to spend most of my time apologising for things that I have got wrong.  So much so that while I was emailing my wedding couple earlier today I happened to glance up and see that I still have last Lent’s ‘motivational sign’ stuck to the shelf in front of my desk: “Get your act together, Barrett!” it reads, in bright red pen.  Clearly my disorganisation is not a new problem. And clearly I can be heartily and miserably sorry for the ways that it gets in the way of the gospel (ie the ways that I get in the way of the gospel), for the ways that it lets people down (ie for the way that I let people down) and for the damage that it may do to the credibility of the church (ie the damage that I do to the credibility of the church).  And I can apologise till I’m blue in the face, but my apology, my penitence, is empty unless I have the desire and the means to do things differently, and genuinely prioritise and care for every single one of those things entrusted to me.

So, one last sorry: to everyone reading this who I have ever offended by my disorganisation, tardiness, or forgetfulness, I truly and sorry, and I truly am asking God to help me do things better.

So maybe this Lent, my ‘sorry’ can be less empty.  Maybe this Lent my ‘sorry’ will come with a genuine ‘please’ to God to help me get my act together.  I pray for myself and for all disorganised vicars everywhere that the Good Shepherd will seek out and save the things we lose track of…