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“Regret,” says author Brené Brown, “is a tough but fair teacher.” The idea, she writes, is that regret gives us the opportunity to grow, to make amends, to be better than we have been.
I suppose there is some truth to that. We learn – or ought to learn – from our mistakes, the things we said and did that we now wish we hadn’t, that we would say or do differently if only we had the chance.
When I retired and sat down to write about my more than forty years of ministry, which is how I decided to process my working life, the regrets I thought about were mostly not the result of things I said or did. Overall, with only a few exceptions, I felt pretty good about the things I said and did.
What I regretted were the things I didn’t say, or failed to say, but should have.
As I thought back over my ministry, my years of pastoring churches, I realized that I kept a great deal to myself. I didn’t speak up about much. I certainly never raised my voice or lost my temper. People thought of me – if they thought of me at all – as a thoughtful, stable, caring sort. An image that, in hindsight, I carefully cultivated.
Inside, though, a lot was going on. I often hated being the adult in the room during tense meetings, the kind where others felt free to rant and rave about whatever. I always held it together, listening, nodding, and playing my cards close to the vest. I seldom said what I was thinking.
Years later, I find myself wishing that I had spoken up more than I did, a lot more. I think I could have been the adult in the room and still said clearly and forcefully what I was thinking. But I didn’t. At least not very often. And I regret that.
A couple of recent essays in the Reformed Journal have got me thinking about this – the first by Keith Mannes, and the other, soon after, by Duane Kelderman. Each in his own voice expressed what he was thinking and feeling. Each wrote with sincerity and vulnerability. When I watched the YouTube video which Duane mentions in his essay, I saw – or thought I saw – unguarded moments that you often don’t see with preachers of his (my) age and experience. I was touched.
The responses to the essays – and there have been a lot of them – were overwhelmingly supportive, even grateful. A few were not, but they were the exceptions. (I suppose the responses, more than anything, reflect the current Reformed Journal readership.)
Whenever I imagined myself in a similar situation over the years, I imagined that the responses to my honesty would be overwhelmingly negative and angry. I imagined myself losing my job and my reputation – the thoughtful, stable, caring reputation I had carefully cultivated. I have always been good at imagining worst case scenarios.
In hindsight, I might have angered a few people by expressing myself in ways similar to Keith and Duane (I certainly share their convictions), but if I had trusted the people I served, I’m guessing that many more of them would have responded with appreciation, even gratitude, like the readers of the Reformed Journal.
More than a few of the people I served were depending on me to speak up, and by keeping quiet I let them down. I regret that more than anything else in my ministry. There were members of my congregations – LGBTQ members – who needed someone to speak on their behalf, and most of the time I failed to do that.
Outside the dining hall at the seminary I attended are several plaques honoring graduates of the seminary who were martyred in the course of their work. I lived on campus, and so I passed those plaques every day, three times a day, for two years. I assume those plaques were hung in that location for a reason – so that my classmates and I would see them.
One of the plaques honors Elijah Parish Lovejoy, a Presbyterian pastor, journalist, newspaper editor, and abolitionist. I made special note of Lovejoy because, at that point in my life, I thought I would be taking a similar career path.
Lovejoy’s abolitionist writings got him into trouble more than once. When he lived in Alton, Illinois, Lovejoy was attacked one night, dragged to the street, and killed by a pro-slavery mob. They threw his printing press into the Mississippi River.
There was such fear surrounding Lovejoy’s death that no funeral service was held. The town newspaper did not report his death, and he was buried in an unmarked grave. Other newspapers around the country, however, did report the murder, and over the years Lovejoy has become a symbol of courage, someone who was willing to die for what he believed, someone who spoke up and said what he believed to be true.
I was no Elijah Parish Lovejoy. But, at long last, I think I may be finding my voice.