Last Sunday I messed up.

If there’s any good news in it, perhaps it’s that I messed up in the High Holy Days of Judaism which my Jewish siblings remind me is an invitation to open our hearts to our need for forgiveness, for grace, for living anew into a new year.

In my sermon last Sunday I did exactly what we’re trying to be more aware of and not do as a community of faith – I stepped right into a verbal microaggression.

A microaggression is a brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignity whether intentional or unintentional that communicates hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.

It’s been helpful this week to reflect back on what I did and what I’ve learned.

I thought my sermon last Sunday had gone well and before I closed things down to leave for the day, I saw an email noting something about the “impact” of my sermon.  Assuming a complement, I opened the email only to discover that it was an expression of deep hurt at a comment I made in my sermon using a derogatory term for migrants as a way to refer to Moses.

When I’m sailing, and the wind starts blowing hard, I’m quick to do the opposite of what I need to do.  Instead of letting the sails out, I tend to grip and hold on tight.  I did the same thing I do sailing in my office last Sunday afternoon.  I didn’t take a breath but took refuge to my familiar reactive practices:

  • I felt awful and I wanted to make it all better. I picked up the phone and called.  When my call wasn’t picked up, I left a voice mail message.
  • In my message I offered my apology and ran to tell my back story of why I’d used the term, where it had come from, all my intentions.
  • I said I was sorry. But that expression of apology didn’t really release anything in me but continued to leave me tangled in my own self-incrimination, despair, and hopelessness.

Fortunately, the story didn’t end there.

A few minutes later I got another email from the same person who didn’t let me off the hook.

  • They let me know my need to talk it out and make it all better was my need. They were not ready to talk.
  • They called me on my justifications. They told me my response and back story didn’t help but only made matters worse.
  • They reminded me that this community of faith has asked me as a pastor to hold a space of safety and that space was violated on Sunday.

I can only call it God’s Grace.  The Grace of God that came to me in not reacting again in my familiar spinning ways, but taking a breath and stepping back.  I heard what they were saying or at least had a little more understanding of what I had done and the impact it had.

I have no doubt that my ability to see something beyond my familiar reactions this second time was due to the little bit of practice I’ve had engaging in challenging conversations on race when I’ve messed up before.  I had a little bit of experience that had shown me there was a different way to respond than my first response.  It’s why I know that having opportunities to practice having conversations about race and racism is so important for my spiritual growth and that of our church. What I’d learned in practicing before, helped me see another way forward.

I remembered the “Ted Talk” by Jay Smooth I’d seen at our church’s racial justice training, “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Discussing Race.”

I remembered that he said too often white people like me jump to the conclusion that if we do or say things that show our racism that we are a “bad” person.  We jump into all the justification, denial, self-incrimination like I did and was tempted to do.  We believe that if our racism has been called out and exposed, we couldn’t possibly be “good” people and we run to do a lot of things to defend our “goodness”.

My response to run to the defense of my own goodness and my spiral of trying to get out of my shame does nothing productive.  If anything, as I learned last Sunday again, it causes more harm.  In doing so, I can keep all of the structures of racism intact, including my own. I can run to shame and blame and never change, not really.  I never really hear what is being said and the impact it has had.  I can’t see my way out to a better way to respond when I have caused hurt.

Smooth’s invitation to whites like me is to see what I did on Sunday as an issue that’s not about “goodness” but is instead a dental hygiene issue.

Getting a piece of lettuce caught in my teeth is not an uncommon experience for me.  When someone points it out, I often feel embarrassed and self-critical.  I also know what to do.  I go rinse my mouth, floss my teeth, take care of it.

My humbling experience on Sunday taught me it lot.

  • It clarified for me again that it’s not about defending my “goodness” and getting it right all the time. I certainly don’t and I won’t when it comes to conversations about race.  I’m a work in process and there will always be a lot I need to understand and learn.  Racist assumptions, attitudes, ways of being run deep in me as they do in our country.  But I am committed to not letting the story end there.  I have been and am committed to intentionally grow, learn and change.  I just don’t expect that I’ll be perfect.
  • When I have committed a microaggression, I know what to do. I know that when I have caused harm it is my responsibility to take responsibility for what I’ve done, to say I’m sorry and to make concrete steps to change and grow. I will do that on this Sunday as I lead our congregation into the prayer of confession.
  • I’m all the more grateful for truly generous souls in my congregation who don’t just walk away but risk having the conversations with me that help keep me accountable for the words I say and the impact they have.

What about you?

  • If you identify as white, when you are in a conversation on race, how important is it for you to defend your goodness?
  • What keeps you from hearing what is being said?
  • How are you committed to change?

In the heart of these high holy days in Judaism, perhaps it’s a very good day for us to join our Jewish siblings and hear the invitation for us to open our hearts to deeper truth, vulnerability, forgiveness and grace.

Perhaps it is a good day, to begin anew, again.

5 thoughts on “Micro-Mess”

  1. Thanks for this, Peter. It was a brave thing to write and I appreciate your vulnerability. You are making it easier for the rest of us to confront our racism and not flog ourselves about it, but instead just go forward more aware.


  2. Challenging for all of us, Peter. Thanks for your important teaching! You are a blessing to all of us flawed imperfectly perfect beings.


  3. Peter, I was unaware of the term “microagression.” Thanks for introducing me to that idea.
    I see that as a powerful idea when we separate ourselves from “the other” around issues of race,
    class, country of origin, etc. But I’m also struck at how we can conduct microagressions against
    ourselves as we continue long-term patterns of self criticism and blaming. Wow. Lots of forgiveness work possible and invited in the midst of all of this – combined with gentleness and breath.


  4. Peter, bravo for showing us how to act when we inevitably make mistakes in our anti-racism work, and being willing to expose your embarrassment and shame. We are a better congregation for it, and it inspires me personally to not use fear of making mistakes as an excuse not to keep trying. So admire and appreciate your support and willingness to engage.


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