"We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. [If we are] devoid of the power to forgive [we are] devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies."
—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I’ve been doing a lot of guest preaching lately and it’s always a little awkward. I often don’t know how the congregation is used to doing things. Recently I’ve tripped on my robe, forgotten to extinguish the chalice, called someone by the wrong name, and gave the wrong musician the head nod to cue the anthem. Oops. Sometimes I feel embarrassed by my mistakes, but all-in-all they are relatively small things. Except one.
I preached recently in a building that was a beautiful old chapel in the country. Because it was old, it was one of those buildings where accessibility was a challenge. The congregation had just finished (I think the paint was still wet!) installing an accessible entrance and bathroom. They’d installed a small elevator before that. They were understandably and appropriately proud and I was enthusiastic in my gratitude as they showed me the improvements.
Then they took me upstairs to the worship space and showed me the pulpit, which was up four steps on the chancel. Those steps are not a barrier for me, but they would be for others. And we’d just been celebrating their good work in making the rest of the building accessible. And I choked. I stammered out something like “too bad those stairs are there…,” which was neither very polite nor very helpful in reminding them there was still work to be done. And then I preached from their pulpit, even though it was inaccessible and even though I have a commitment to preach only from an accessible place in the room. (In this case, that just would have meant preaching from the floor rather than going up the steps to the pulpit.)
The hardest times to hold ourselves and each other accountable compassionately is when the work has begun but there's more to be done. We want to acknowledge the effort, and it feels a little awkward to say, “What a great start! You did something great, but you’re not quite there.” And sometimes, when we’re the ones who have begun to change, it’s hard to hear, “I’m still going to preach from the floor since not everyone can access your pulpit.”
And yet, as Dr. King says, we have to grapple with our incompleteness. We have to understand that we, like everyone else, are always going to be a mix of good intentions and incomplete effort; good results and some things that don’t turn out that well; and yes, even good and evil. We are sometimes selfish, sometimes complicit with systems that do harm, sometimes the cause of pain and injustice. Until we can hold compassion for ourselves and others—until we can be forgiving when we fall short—our love is incomplete.
Dear Spirit of Love, help us understand that to be human is to be always learning, always growing, always incomplete. Let this knowing enlarge our compassion for ourselves and for others. Help us grow in our capacity to forgive and to accept forgiveness when we make mistakes and in this way, become more capable of loving ourselves and each other. Amen.