To Remove Our Shortcomings

Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date: 
Sun, 09/23/2012

Every year around the time of the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, I do a worship service about repentance or forgiveness.  Now, you may be wondering, why do I do this, when we are Unitarian Universalist, and not Jewish?

The easy answer that comes readily to UU lips is that a good chunk of UUs come from Jewish backgrounds, and the High Holy Days of September are important to them.  After all, we celebrate Christmas and often Easter because many of our members, and our religion itself, come out of the Christian faith.  Why not do the same with other religious observances that are important to our members, seems to be the thinking here.  It’s a thoughtful and egalitarian thing to do.

But it can lead to a strange calculus of worship experience, where any given UU congregation might assess the religious backgrounds of its membership and then observe the religious traditions of each on some sort of pro-rated basis:  Four for Christian, three Jewish, three Pagan, two Buddhist, and one wildcard religious observance to round up the rest?  Or some other sort of mix, depending on who is here?  When you put it like this, it seems rather silly, but that is where that sort of thinking takes you.  It also makes you wonder what UU traditions there might be, and why we don’t just observe those instead of a combination of what other religions have to offer.  And that is a reasonable thing to wonder.

I like to recognize Yom Kippur each year for a slightly different reason than the one I’ve been describing, a more basic UU reason.  I like to recognize Yom Kippur because I believe that every human being has a fundamental need to conduct an occasional moral inventory of themselves, to see where they’ve fallen short, and to make amends, both with the other people with whom they travel through their lives, and also with the Ultimate Reality that many call God.  I believe that doing this from time to time leads to spiritual health, not to mention interpersonal health.  And UUs, as a whole, are interested in doing things that lead to spiritual health in human beings.

I say I think it’s important for all human beings to do this periodically, but until I learned about Yom Kippur observances, it had not occurred to me that this self-assessment and structured repentance was so important that we might want to dedicate an entire religious ritual and observance to it, but that is exactly what the Jews have been doing for thousands of years.  To me, as a Unitarian Universalist, the observance of Yom Kippur reminds me of this deep human need, and offers not only a time to observe it, but also a ritual by which to observe it.  And since I think it is important that every human being have this opportunity to assess their shortcomings, ask for forgiveness, and plan to improve, I like to borrow this holiday for Unitarian Universalism.  Its time-tested rituals can help us meet a need that all people, not just the Chosen People, have.

In the lead up to Yom Kippur, the Jewish process of repentance is observed, and it is called teshuva.  It goes like this: 

First, a person who has done something wrong, which is presumably all of us, that person is called upon to recognize and discontinue the inappropriate behavior or mistake. 

Then, we are supposed to confess the problem or mistake to the person who was affected by it, verbally. 

We are then to actively regret the problematic behavior or mistake, in our hearts.  We are supposed to evaluate the negative impact the action may have had on ourselves and on others.

We are then to devise a plan to rectify the situation.  Sometimes this isn’t possible.  Either it isn’t possible at all, or isn’t possible to do without causing more harm.  In this case, we are to focus on changing patterns or cycles so that a future offense is made less likely.

At this point, and not before these other steps have been performed, we are ready to ask forgiveness from the person affected by the problematic behavior. 

So, first there is recognition of the problem, and stopping the problem – Seeing, we could call that.  There is admitting that the problem exists to the person or people who are affected, who have been harmed – Telling, if you will.  There is a process of honest and earnest remorse – Regretting, repenting.  Then there is Changing, making the problem better, or figuring out how to avoid repeating it.  And then there is Asking Forgiveness.

Seeing.  Telling.  Regretting.  Changing.  Seeking forgiveness.  The teshuva of Yom Kippur.

I said that I think this process can inform us all, Jewish or not.  It can help any person become more aware of their shortcomings when needed, and help any person develop a path forward when needed.  Apparently I’m not the only one to think so, because last spring I once again came across a copy of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous - the roadmap, if you will, that AA participants use to get their lives back on track from addiction.

I think most of us are at least glancingly if not intimately familiar with the 12 steps, but if you, like me, haven’t seen them up close for a while, I’m going to put them up on the screen here so that you can take a look.  (See them at  See if they look familiar at all in the context of what we’re talking about today.

The 12 Step Program of AA was created to be used by people whose lives are being destroyed by alcohol abuse.  The use of the program has been expanded to help those who are having trouble with drugs and food and other issues as well. 

But look at the steps more from a Yom Kippur standpoint for a moment, if you would, and less from an addiction standpoint.  Yom Kippur practice is to See, Tell, Regret, Change and Ask Forgiveness, right?.  Well, look at steps four through nine, here.  See, Step 4.  Tell, Step 5.  Regret, repent, Steps 6 and 7.  Change, Steps 7 and 8.  Ask Forgiveness, Step 9.  They even have follow up in Step 10.  It’s all right here.  Yom Kippur practice is embedded in the 12 Step Program.

Why does this matter, this universality of the Yom Kippur practice, so much so that we see it in the 12 steps of AA, and we talk about it in a Unitarian Universalist congregation?

The purpose of the Yom Kippur practice is to work on your spiritual health, and to show that interpersonal health is inseparable from spiritual health.  Yom Kippur is essentially the first thing you do after the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah.  The reason for that is because the religion wants you to start the new year fresh, to send you on your way to learning something new, on your way to being a better person, happier, and more useful for society as a whole.

The purpose of the 12 Step Program is also to work on spiritual health, using interpersonal health as a way forward. 

But the 12 steps do not only outline the exact same recommendations that Yom Kippur does.  They also, interestingly, make explicit some other religious notions that are probably assumed by Judaism, or are covered by other religious teachings.  But since Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religion, they need to give more foundation to the quest for spiritual health.  And they do so with the other steps you see here, before and after we get to the Yom Kippurish part.

The reason why I’m talking about this today is because I would suggest to you that as helpful as the Yom Kippur practices are, perhaps UUs also need more explicit teaching about the path towards spiritual health.  In fact, I would suggest that the 12 step program might have much to tell us UUs as we consider our religious lives in general, not only at this time of assessment and moral inventory, but overall. 

Take a look at the first few steps as a possible road map for spiritual health that could be useful to all of us whether we have addictions or not.  I’m going to take the first three steps together, and I’m going to universalize them by leaving out the direct reference to addiction.  What if each of us UUs were to say: 

We admitted we were powerless - that our lives had become unmanageable.  We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.  We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

Frankly, these three steps sound to me like the path of any number of spiritual seekers, including myself.  And, the three steps sound very UU in religious orientation in some ways, because they allow for so much religious freedom.

I don’t think it matters why we suddenly decide that our lives have become unmanageable, but I know that many people in church do believe that.  For AA attendees, it is alcohol that causes or shows the unmanageability.  For people looking for church, maybe it is an overwhelming tragedy of some kind that leaves them feeling confused and powerless.  We get a lot of folks in church who have experienced something like that.

Or maybe it’s a more gentle life-change realization, like “I’ve had these kids, and that’s a really big responsibility, and I’d like some help with raising them well.”  Or, “I’m getting older now, and I’m wondering what’s ahead for me.”  There are life stages that can certainly seem unmanageable.

Or maybe you’ve been just putting one foot in front of the other according to what you thought the world said was the right thing to do, but now you’re realizing that you’ve gotten too far away from who you truly are and what you truly want, and you feel like your life is unmanageable and you don’t know where to turn.  You aren’t sure what to do. 

There are any number of ways we humans can feel powerless and that our lives have become unmanageable.

Of those who feel that way, some make it to churches and synagogues and other religious houses, and of those, some make it to Unitarian Universalist places of worship, and some have made it here.  I think those who find themselves coming to religious places when their lives become unmanageable are people who have in fact decided that they agree with Step 2 here, that there must be a Power greater than themselves that can restore them to sanity. 

They may not be exactly sure what that power is, but they know that religious institutions exist in order to deal with questions and situations of these kinds, questions of “what does it all mean?” and “what should I do now?” and “how can I be healed, or made whole?”  This is what religion is for.  Religion is to give order and meaning to lives that have become unmanageable.  In fact, religion does more than that.  Religion, good religion, says “Hey, you’ve noticed that life is ultimately unmanageable, and it all ends in death anyway?  Good observation:  You’re right.  Now what are you going to do?” 

And religion is here on earth to tell you, remind you, that you were right to begin with, that there is a Power greater than you that can restore you to sanity.  You don’t ever have to do it alone.  The power can be called God, it can be called Love, it can be called Human Community, but it is great and it is bigger than you and it can save you.

So, let’s say it’s true that a search for some benevolent, helpful, ill-defined Power has brought many a seeker to our UU doors.  But what about that next statement, the 3rd Step? UUs, here and elsewhere, can get stuck a bit here.  This step takes some openmindedness on the part of your average UU.

First, traditionally, UUs aren’t good at turning their wills over to anybody.  The very notion is often foreign to us, being humanists and individualists and privileged the way that we are.  We’ll come back to this problem in a second. 

The second area we get stuck is that UUs are among the best of all religions at stating up front that we don’t understand God, and we make the mistake of thinking we have to figure out a God concept first, before we do any will-turning-over or anything like that.

Sometimes we say we don’t understand God by saying that we don’t believe in God.  Sometimes we say we don’t understand God by saying that we don’t know for sure what God is like.  And sometimes we just say we have too many questions, and would like for someone to just come along and explain it all for once in a way that makes sense. 

But this step, this step 3 of this remarkably religious document, is not saying we should turn our wills and our lives over to God once we’ve understood God.  That’s just a quintessential UU reading of this statement.  No, it says we should turn our wills and our lives over to God, and it allows for a definition of God that means something to you.  And whatever it is that God means to you works just fine, both in Unitarian Universalism and in Alcoholics Anonymous.

So here are some sample rewrites that might be more palatable to a Unitarian Universalist:
I will decide to turn my will and my life over to God, which is that mysterious Power that restores sanity even when I feel less than sane.
I will decide to turn my will and my life over to God, even though I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure it doesn’t mean what most people in the world say it means.
I will decide to turn my will and my life over to God, which is not a word I like all that much, but I belong to a community of love and support, and I’ll just turn my life over to that.
I will decide to turn my will and my life over to God, which is that loving undercurrent to all of life that holds me in a loving embrace no matter what I do, no matter what happens to me.

Any of those, and any other, would work.  Because the main point of Step three is not to understand God.  The main point of Step three is to decide to turn your will and your life over, in the quest for spiritual health.  And that is really hard to do.  It’s hard for anyone.  And it’s particularly hard for UUs.

Well, if it’s so hard, why do it at all, you may be wondering.  After all, this isn’t some UU religious document – it’s a program for addicts who are trying to turn their lives around.  And sure, maybe it is true that the 12 steps mimic the teachings of most of the major world religions, not only explicitly here in the Yom Kippurish steps 4-9, but also in the humble, honest and submissive steps 1 – 3.  Sure, maybe it is in fact true - and it is - that the 12 steps do describe what Christianity and Judaism and Islam and Taoism and Buddhism all recommend as the path to a life of peace.  Even so, maybe it doesn’t follow that we should bend ourselves to fit the 12 step program, just because we are also religious people in search of spiritual health.  It looks like it’s hard to do.  And it seems a little weird.

Believe me, I’d love to stop here and give you excellent reasons for why you should decide to turn your will and your life over to a God of your understanding, a higher power that’s, at the least, good and big and not you.  But upon reflection, I’m not sure my reasonings will make much of a difference to you.  I think this is one of those things you have to come to on your own.  Both Yom Kippur and AA just offer a roadmap, a blueprint, towards spiritual health, that’s all.  They can’t make you spiritually healthy, and neither can I:  That’s between you and your people and your God.

But I would like to suggest that you trust these processes, so similar to each other, and give them a try.  If you have significant areas of your life that need to be redeemed, then the season of Yom Kippur is an excellent time to make any sort of inventory of your situation and to take steps towards resolving them.  The steps of See, Tell, Regret, Change and Ask Forgiveness are already spelled out for you.  Give them a try.  Trust these people who have walked the road before you.  They are part of that Power that can restore you to sanity when your life has become unmanageable.

And if there are steps here that seem really wacky to you, beladen as they are with suggestions that you turn control of your will over to something that isn’t you, I ask that you give these notions a chance to become more clear in your life. 

My favorite AA step of all is number 11:  We sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood God, praying only for knowledge of God's will for us and the power to carry that out. 

Yom Kippur and AA offer many concrete steps towards obtaining greater spiritual health, but this is the broadest step, the one that underpins the rest of the journey.  To start towards spiritual health, this time of year or any other, the best thing to do is to open your heart to all that is good and powerful about this world and say, as often as you can: “Show me the way.”

So may it be for you and for yours this holiday season.  May you have an easy Yom Kippur.