“I’m so sorry. No excuses, I’m just so sorry.” And the tears started.
When I was in seminary, I was asked to visit an undergraduate group, Spectrum, which provided support and community for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer students. At the time, the Southern Methodist University was ranked the 12th most homophobic college in the nation, so these young people were most certainly in need of a support system. Based on the Texas conservative religious culture, I had some idea about the hurt these young people had probably experienced in their churches and their homes, and was nervous to join them as a representative of the theology school. Why on earth would they feel safe with me there? They had earned their reservations and judgements about people of faith.
With about 20 college students in the room, we went around in the circle and did introductions. People shared bits of their experiences or why they needed the group. The leader who invited me intentionally had me to close sharing to last. I had one chance to not be just another religious person who said something hurtful or stupid to these vulnerable young people.
“Thank you for welcoming me. My name is Jessica and I’m a student at the theology school, preparing to become a United Methodist minister. I believe you are all blessedly and sacredly made, perfect in the eyes of God. You deserve whatever relationships will bring you fulfillment. I’m not here to try and make you go to church. I just wanted you to know that you have support of students and people of faith, and if you ever need anything or want to talk, please let me know. I know you have had traumatic experiences with people of faith, and I’m so sorry. No excuses, I’m just so sorry.”
And the tears started. I was taken aback. I had gotten a little teary while talking because I am so ashamed of how we as a universal church have treated and continue to treat the GLBTQA community, but I expected anger from these kids, not tears or vulnerability. I expected them to hate me because of who I represented. I had entirely underestimated the power of a genuine apology and God’s presence.
I developed a relationship with them over the two years that followed, attending meetings occasionally, talking over coffee, answering scriptural questions, and even showing movies and having discussions on religious topics (Prayers for Bobby, For the Bible Tells Me So, etc). Leaving Dallas for my internship meant leaving them, and that made me sad. It was a wonderful relationship, and it all started with an apology.
As you prepare a sermon on Matthew 5: 21-37 or any sermon on anger and forgiveness, consider talking about the power or a real apology. Scripture tells us in several places to make peace with someone we have hurt and to talk openly with someone who has hurt us:
“So if you are about to place your gift on the altar and remember that someone is angry with you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. Make peace with that person, then come back and offer your gift to God.” (Matthew 5:21-37)
You have probably had a situation where someone has hurt your feelings or caused harm of some sort and apologized, but you still didn’t feel quite right about it. My guess would be because the apology went something like this:
“I’m sorry that you felt…..”
“I’m sorry that you thought….”
“I’m sorry, but….”
There are other variations, but these are common examples of the non-apology. An apology that includes these or similar phrases is not a real apology. The person is not sorry for what they have done, is not accepting responsibility and is not providing assurances that the transgression will not happen again.
We have lost the art of the true and genuine apology, and as a result, forgiveness and reconciliation (which are two separate and distinct processes) is not occurring nearly enough in our culture. People carry deep, open wounds because they are not receiving an apology and the request for forgiveness needed to move forward in healing.
Even though I had never personally wounded any of the young people in the room that day, my apology had meaning to them because I represented the entity that had wounded them. It was powerful in a way I still struggle to understand. Maybe it’s a living example of Philippians 4:7, God’s peace surpassing all understanding. I just know that those young people cried and hugged me and talked about how meaningful my apology was.
Model this in your congregation. If you hurt a member of leadership with a flippant comment or if you get angry and say something wrong, apologize. Genuinely. Without excuse. If your transgression took place in a meeting, apologize in front of everyone. Humble yourself and model what the scriptures instruct us. If your church members are hurting one another, counsel them on the faithful way to apologize. Open a meeting with a meditation on the importance of apology for the betterment of the community. You are their spiritual leader. Lead spiritually.
“I’m sorry that I said X. It was wrong and out of line and I regret it, and I regret that I hurt you. I know that it will take time for you to trust me again. I’m working on my temper/sarcasm/passive aggressive tendencies because I know it is one of my flaws. I hope with time you can forgive me. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help restore our relationship. I really am sorry.”
That is an apology.
God calls us to be in meaningful relationships. But we are flawed, wounded and diverse people, which means we will hurt someone, accidentally or on purpose. People will be angry with us and we will be angry with others. We will have misunderstandings. We will have different priorities and values. And all of this might take place in one Church Council meeting.
Before we come to God’s altar, we are to make peace with those we might have hurt so that we come forth with a peaceful heart. Encourage your congregation to think of a person they need to apologize to or someone they might have hurt. Is there a regret they are so ashamed of they avoid the person instead of addressing it? Is ego keeping them from admitting to being wrong.
Invite them to be part of bringing God’s peace that surpasses all understanding by playing an active part in the healing of someone else’s heart.