It was a snowy Saturday afternoon and the streets had not yet been plowed. At around 5pm my teenager asked me if I could drive her to her boyfriend’s house. I looked at her incredulously. “Don’t you know it’s snowing out? The roads haven’t even been plowed. Plus it’s getting dark and it’s only getting colder. I’m sorry honey, but not tonight.”
My teenager is an awesome person. She is so caring, so kind, always looking out for the marginalized, always rooting for the underdog. She is often wise beyond her years. But then she does something that reminds me she is still only a teenager, with normal wild teenage hormones and developmentally appropriate selfishness. Problem is, I still haven’t figured out when I will welcome the one and have to brace myself for the other!
Suddenly I was being attacked. I was unreasonable, unfair. She hadn’t seen her boyfriend all week and couldn’t I understand? Didn’t I care? I kept my cool, repeated myself and told her I honestly felt bad about it but our minivan isn’t great in the snow and the driving would only get worse – I was sure the roads would be better tomorrow and I would happily drive her to visit him then. But for some reason, my comments only exacerbated the situation and she became even more worked up. Now, I was being told (loudly!) that I never did anything for her, and she stormed away from me, went to her bedroom and slammed the door. I had been hit with the developmentally appropriate selfish monster. wow.
My parenting style is quite different from the one I grew up with. I wasn’t allowed to express anger towards my parents, what they said was law and that was the end of it. I wanted my children to have something different. I didn’t want them to be afraid to be angry – at anyone. So, once in a while in our house things will get loud – and I’m ok with that. We DO have certain rules of respect – ways we can talk (and NOT talk) to each other – but as long as we stay within those parameters my husband and I generally let things play out. The other behavior we try to model for our children is confession and forgiveness. Our children know we are not perfect. I’ve been saying I’m sorry to my kids about stuff since they were babies. In my sermon on Ash Wednesday last week I challenged the popular phrase, “love means never having to say you’re sorry,” with the truth, which is, “love means having to say you’re sorry A LOT.” If we love someone, and we’ve hurt them in some way, even if we couldn’t avoid it, it’s important to acknowledge it, and ask for forgiveness if called for, or have compassion for their feelings if we stand by our actions. Of course, since we’re religious folks, we’re also modelling a good faith practice – you know, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us….
- Sometimes I’m sorry is an offering of confession and request for forgiveness. “I know I did something wrong and I hope you forgive me.”
- Sometimes I’m sorry is an offering of compassion and consolation. “I know you’re hurt or angry about what I did/said, and although I stand by it, I do care for you and feel badly, and want to be here for you,” or simply “I’m sorry for your loss.”
In this case, there was nothing I could do for my daughter. The I’m sorry I said to her at the beginning of this story fell into the second category. I really did feel badly that I couldn’t take her, but I would not be changing my mind and driving on dangerous roads. I made a decision that caused her hurt, and I couldn’t change the situation. I offered her compassion but she got angry with me and lashed out.
About a half hour later my daughter came into my bedroom quietly, looked me in the eye and said, “I’m sorry I got angry with you before.” THIS was an example of the first I’m sorry – confession and forgiveness. Internally I was cheering for her bravery and maturity, and at having a part in the raising of this amazing young woman – YES! Externally I remained calm and replied, “Thank you. I really do feel badly you can’t see him tonight, and I WILL take you tomorrow.” I accepted her confession, she accepted my compassion, and we were reconciled. (And she DID see her boyfriend the next day!)
For the record, the first kind of I’m sorry is MUCH harder to do! It takes courage to admit when we’re wrong. It takes trust to acknowledge to another person that we have done/said/acted in a way that hurt them. It takes humility to place ourselves before another and ask for pardon. It’s risky! What if they say no? What if they take our confession and toss it back in our face? What if they don’t believe our sincerity? What if they hurt me in return? In the second instance the one who causes the hurt still has control and power – but in the first instance, in confession, we relinquish power and control.
When we confess, we make ourselves vulnerable.
Certainly I’m sorry is a hope for reconciliation with the other, but it begins with our desire to take responsibility. So, even if the other person isn’t ready to forgive, we have taken the first step (acknowledgment of wrong) and opened up the possibility of dialog and restoration. In our walk of faith there may indeed be times when our confession is rejected by the other. It’s not a good feeling, but in that instance we need to focus on our confession and willingness to repent instead of the person’s reaction. We need to pray for them in their journey of healing, because forgiveness is important to both parties – the one who commits the offense and the one who is hurt. If there is reparation to be done in order for reconciliation to happen, then we do it.
Above all, we need to remember that while forgiveness in human relationships may be risky and imperfect, divine forgiveness is NOT. There may be earthly consequences for our actions. This is part of making amends. There may be times we’ve hurt people and the relationship cannot be saved. But our relationship with God is one of eternal love. God certainly isn’t happy with us when we sin, especially when that sin causes harm to our neighbor. But God is always present to hear and accept our confession, and to grant us absolution. The human party may not be ready to grant forgiveness, but God always is. And unlike human relationships that may be permanently broken, our relationship with God is forever, through no doing of our own.
One of disciplines of Lent is repentance (remorse or contrition for past conduct or sin). As we practice this discipline in our lives, I hope we take special notice of all the I’m sorrys we hear – the ones we speak, and the ones spoken to us. It really is an amazing thing – I’m sorry – it holds so much power to reconcile and restore – both in our human relationships and in our relationship with God.
Almighty and ever-living God, you hate nothing you have made, and you forgive the sins of all who are penitent. Create in us new and honest hearts, so that, truly repenting of our sins, we may receive from you, the God of all mercy, full pardon and forgiveness through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. (prayer for Ash Wednesday)