“Reflections on Atonement”


We are in the midst of the High Holy Days of the Jewish year. Rosh Hoshana, the Jewish New Year was celebrated last weekend and tonight at sundown the celebration of Yom Kippur begins. The first commemorates the creation of the world and marks a ten-day period of introspection and repentance that culminates on the second, also called the Day of Atonement. In the Hebrew sacred texts, the Book of Leviticus mandates this time and this day – the tenth day of the seventh month – for honoring their sacred traditions. In most Jewish places of worship, as a means of signaling the start and the end of the holidays a ram’s horn trumpet called a shofar is blown in a specific sequence. In ancient days it was also used to signal a fast. Some people think of it as an alarm beckoning them to wake up and change the things in their lives that are unaligned with their values and beliefs. We are blessed to have Frank Toppa with us who has offered to blow the shofar this morning as we enter into a time introspection together.

BLOWING OF THE SHOFAR

For our Jewish siblings in faith this is a time to reflect on the passing year and to get back on track, a time for spiritual cleansing. It is a time for judgement, remembrance, and repentance. Rather than focusing on natural or historic events, these holidays offer an inward approach that looks at one’s relationship to other people and to their G-d. In preparation for Yom Kippur, a favorite custom called Tashlich calls for Jewish people to visit a body of free-flowing water and empty their pockets of crumbs and lint, symbolizing the casting away of guilt and letting go of the previous year. Many folks travel to the shore with bread in these times, tossing small pieces into the moving water as they let go of wrongs from the year past. Traditionally this is considered the last chance to make amends, to repent before the Book of Life is sealed once again on Yom Kippur.

We come from many faith traditions, not all of us consider ourselves to be “birthright UU’s” and we bring with us the memories and remnants of rituals past, even as we have chosen to believe and practice in different ways now. What makes meaning for us has shifted perhaps over time. I was brought up in the Roman Catholic tradition where ‘Confession’ with a capital ‘C’ is considered a sacrament. I still remember the words as I entered the dimly lit booth in the church of my childhood, speaking to the anonymous figure behind the screen who would meet out absolution: “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned,” I would say, then, marking the days since I had last come by to empty myself of wrongdoing, I would list the ways in which I believed I had missed the mark. The prayers that followed would free me to go on with my life.

At some point along my spiritual path I began to believe that there was no need for the middleman and that I could talk directly to God about whatever burden I was carrying. It was the beginning of a journey that moved me away from the church of my youth. Still later I moved further from this idea that there was a God up there somewhere who would act on my behalf and set my sights instead on an understanding of, quite simply, a power greater than humanity; an energy that flowed in and among us, but not something that would offer forgiveness upon request. I have come to see the acts of forgiving themselves; of mercy; of grace, performed by any one of us toward another, as sacred and binding in their own right.

So, it came as somewhat of a shock to me the day that I was sitting on my cushion using the Metta Meditation – the lovingkindness meditation of the Buddhist tradition as a mantra of sorts: May I be happy. May I be healthy. May I be peaceful and at ease. These phrases as centering sources for my mind and heart – and then, without warning, came an added piece in the progression – “May I be forgiven,” it said, followed by a release of quiet tears. It wasn’t directed at any higher power in particular and there was nothing I was consciously carrying that I needed forgiveness for, but it was a cleansing none the less that brought me back into balance.

The concept of atonement, of reparation, is of value to us whether we believe in a Source that holds sway over it or not. The word is sometimes broken apart into pieces that are intended to make it more understandable; acceptable to those of us who have no “God-being” with whom we communicate. “At-one-ment” is supposed to make it clearer, although I will admit it had not for a long time done the trick for me. But it is this returning to oneness from a state of fragmentation, wrought by a self, divided between our highest personal values and our words and deeds on the ground that I think is what is meant.

Atonement is the final stage in a process whereby we first acknowledge our humanity with all of its frailties and shortcomings; let go of whatever we are holding onto from the past, seeking forgiveness from those we have wronged and offering forgiveness when it is asked of us; and ultimately return to right relationship with others and our sense of whatever is greater than ourselves. In this removal of barriers – the layers of pretense, guilt or self-blame and the outward manifestations of self-righteousness, anger and resentment – we are restored to the oneness that we are grounded in, once again aligned with the interdependent web of which we are all a part.

This idea of restoration runs counter to our western culture’s ideas about crime and punishment, which involve retribution instead and is rooted in vengeance. While our systems profess otherwise, in most cases and in the mainstream of public thought, there is a need to extract by means of punishment, discomfort and removal from relationship in order to effect change, rather than creating a habitat of healing for all affected. Restorative justice is based on the kind of repair we are talking about today. It assumes that there has been a violation of people or of interpersonal relationships; that these violations create an obligation; and that central to this is a putting right of the wrongs, the repair of whatever harms were caused. It assumes, too, that harm is created on both sides of a wrong in addition to the larger community. I recall the efforts, in their early stages when I was involved, working with incarcerated persons and victims in conversations intended to heal and make whole everyone involved in the commission of an act that violated the sanctity of our relationships in this life. Restorative justice paves the way for true atonement to occur – the return of right relationship; the empowering of a state of shalom or “all-rightness” from the Hebrew perspective, with one another, with our ground of being and with our environment.

Parker Palmer, the American author, educator, and activist, in his book “A Hidden Wholeness” talks about the divided life and his journey away from that and toward a life more connected with his true self. I will paraphrase as best as I can. He suggests that in our DNA are the building blocks of who we are and how we are to be in the world; the pieces which in combination make us unique beings. We come into this world quite in touch with these aspects of our selves, but as we grow and are exposed to the world outside the safety of our beginnings we tend to create a wall that separates our true selves from the ways of the world we inhabit. We hide or protect the true self when we see its lack of alignment with what we are encountering. And when we imagine the life of our true self’s desire, we are reminded of the gap between what is and what might be. All the while this true self is seeking to be made manifest in our lives and we end up in a struggle sometimes between it and what we have made of ourselves.

As I reflect on the concept of atonement, part of it has to do with this internal give and take that we experience in life. Our restorative work is often that of reconnecting to and building a relationship with that seed of the true self which we came into the world possessed of. Our interdependent web requires us to be mindful of our obligations to the wider world while remembering that we are connected also to that personhood at our core – its hopes and dreams and desires and baseline values grounded in the goodness of humanity. It is not so much a “God” out there beyond us from which we seek forgiveness and to which we must become reconciled as it is to our highest and best selves.

As Unitarian Universalists we spend a lot of time in our heads! We are the rational thinkers in the liberal religious movement. We talked this week in our Social Justice Committee meeting about translating all that headiness into action – moving from our brains to our hands and feet – engaging the whole body in the work of the church. Atonement asks us to engage our hearts center; the core of our being and to live from that place where our truest and deepest yearnings are found. It is an invitation into the exploration of what is most meaningful for us as individuals and as a faith community; an invitation to trust that each of us is on this journey and to remember that we have chosen to be on it with the people of UUMH; an invitation to reconnect and realign, restoring balance to our lives. May we, in this time of holy introspection among our Jewish friends, also take a moment to look within and prepare for the year to come.

So may it be and Amen.


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