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Sermons at First Parish Church

The Spirituality of Imperfection

Sunday, February 9, 2014
Rev. Kimberly Tomaszewski
First Parish Church of Groton

Anne Lamott, author of many fierce and authentic and hilarious books on faith and life, is a difficult woman to quote. If you have read any of her memoirs you will appreciate that I found a paragraph that can be shared in church. Lamott, in her book Grace (Eventually), has written,

By the time I had dropped out of college at nineteen, I’d acquired a basic and wildly ecumenical faith cobbled together from shards I’d gathered in reading various wisdom traditions — Native American, Hindu, Feminist, Buddhist, even Christian, in a heart-stopping, kick-starting encounter with Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. My best teachers were mess, failure, death, mistakes, and the people I hated, including myself.

Ministers joke with one another that we all really only have one sermon, preached over and over again, with just a few new stories each week. Now of course that’s not entirely true, but jokes are often only retold when they have a hint of truth tucked in.

I don’t want to lose you completely in your wondering of what of what your minister’s one secret sermon is, so I am going to let you in on mine. Anne Lamott, in her raw and unapologetic story telling of life’s most embarrassing and challenging, and thus joyfully authentic moments, is a model of mine. If she writes of nothing else, she speaks truthfully, always, to the Grace, or the Gift, of Imperfection.

Imperfection, that word, blemished by its own definition and yet wrought with theology and faith at its best.

My first real Doing in professional ministry was as a Chaplain at St. Luke’s hospital on the Upper West Side. I was in a group of five and we were each given two floors or wings of the hospital to see regularly, plus the Emergency Room. While my group members were given Oncology wings and Neo-Natal units, I spent a good portion of my time on the locked Detoxification floor. I share that this floor was locked for only two reasons. The first is that I did not have a key and so I was, with the patients, also locked onto my wing, which in retrospect is probably what every first time Chaplain should have happen if you really want to learn to do ministry, well. And the second is that this was not church. Hospital ministry, as you can imagine or have experienced, no matter what floor or for what reason you are there, is not by choice. Nor are the spiritual awakenings, the questions that arise, the clarity that comes, or the young and inexperienced chaplains who greet you, necessarily welcomed. And still, at least in this case on the detox floor, you could not escape them, had you tried.

On Wednesdays in my wing, I would run a “Spirituality and the Twelve Steps” group program with the floor Occupational Therapist. I’ll be honest, some Wednesdays, most of my group fell asleep by the time I explained that I was not from any particular denomination and that Spirituality, like Recovery, takes intention.

But other Wednesdays — other Wednesdays — the conversation would be alive and excited. Clarity would come and the seeds for healing and forgiveness and a want to make it through the painful detox from drugs and alcohol and relationships felt doable. Some would tell me secrets that were buried deep in their bones; others recited wrongs and hopes and discoveries that were listed like creeds of belief that shaped their days and intentions. Many folks on my floor came out to me as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. I spoke to family members, children and spouses, mothers and fathers; I helped write letters to friends and family members who were deceased, or letters even to pieces of oneself that had been tucked away.

I’m not sure how else to say this, and I do say it as a person who was able to leave at the end of the day, who was there by some piece of my own choice and willingness, and as someone who had never experienced the brutality of addiction, but I fell in love with it all. I fell in love with the heartbreak and the brokenness and the inescapable messiness that I was asked to listen to, pray for, and touch.

For someone who was raised in a religious tradition, who sought out congregational life and living, who studied faith beliefs and rejections, it was the first time I had known church. And I tell you, my ministers, my guides, my gurus, were asking me to pray for them. Ernest Kurtz and Katherine Ketcham, authors of the book The Spirituality of Imperfection: Storytelling and the Search for Meaning, write:

The lessons of the ancients are wise and continue to hold meaning for modern men and women. The search for spirituality is, first of all, a search for reality, for honesty, for true speaking and true thinking. At least from the time of the Delphic oracle’s first admonition, “Know thyself,” the arch-foe of spirituality has been recognized to be “denial” — the self-deception that rejects self by attempt to repudiate the essential paradox that is our human be-ing.” The philosopher Jean-Paul Sarte termed such self-deception the “bad faith” of the “attempt to flee what one cannot flee — to flee what one is.”

Now let me be clear — I am not idealizing the painful and destructive realities of addiction or those who struggle with the disease of addiction in its many forms. But what I learned on that detox unit was the reality that to that point I hadn’t been forced to my knees to declare who I was or am; I, who sought to minister to pain and celebration, lived comfortably, not necessarily in denial or self-deception, but certainly in ignorance. And with this discovery, I knew that in order to know myself, I would have to learn to embrace and celebrate Imperfection. “The mess, failure, death, mistakes, and the people I hated, including myself.”

I would have to detox from that ignorance, from that avoidance, from the powers I put into play that prevented me from celebrating my human be-ing.

Brene Brown, who calls herself a “researcher story teller” and holds the title as a Vulnerability Researcher and Professor at the University of Houston, has done extensive data collection and research on vulnerability.

To introduce Brown, you should first know that she explains herself as someone who does not like the discomfort side of things. In her own words, she is interested in messy topics but wants to make them not messy; she wants to organize them and put them in a bento box. And so when Brown was intensely studying Vulnerability, again in Brown’s words, she had what she calls a “mini breakdown” — but what her therapist called a Spiritual Awakening. Let me fill in the gaps a little here.

Brown begins with the starting point of connection, saying that connection is why we’re here; it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives; it is neurobiological. And interestingly, though not in line with our appreciative inquiry practices here at UCS, what Brown found in beginning with connection is that “when asked about love, people tell you about heartbreak; when asked about belonging, they tell you the most excruciating experience of exclusion, and when you ask people about connection, the stories they tell are about disconnection” — But here’s the thing, not just disconnection, and this was the really startling point for Brown, not just disconnection in response to connection, but shame. And shame, Brown explains, is really the fear of disconnection.

Is there something about me, she asks, that if other people see it or hear it, I won’t be worthy of connection?

Brene Brown has numerous worksheets and articles, online classes, a great TED talk and books, on this topic but I am going to just jump to give a very Readers Digest version, if you will. What Brown articulates is that in order for someone to experience connection, one must be vulnerable. And not just a little vulnerable like showing up to a dinner party by yourself, but rather willing to let go of someone you think you should be in order to be who you are. A fully embraced vulnerability that, when described by those who practiced it, said it was what made them beautiful; not comfortable nor excruciating, but necessary. Necessary in order to attain connection.

At The Unitarian Church in Summit, where I serve, there was a small group ministry last year that I co- facilitated when on person after another began by apologizing before offering a follow up thought or before participating in the conversation. “This might sound weird but…” And “Maybe this makes me sound crazy but…” Over and over again we were apologizing to one another despite the fact that once someone shared, others were nodding their head feverishly, saying “yes, yes,” or then offered a similar experience that was still neither weird nor crazy.

“Is there something about me, that if others see or hear, I won’t be worthy of connection?”

I was, and am, deeply proud of that small group conversation and community because though we teetered on the edge of holding back or holding in, this group courageously made space for their vulnerability and discovered one another in a fuller and deeper way. It happens time and again in such opportunities, as I imagine you might know from experience here.

Courage comes from the Latin word Cor, which means Heart… To be courageous meant to tell or show the story of who you are with your whole heart.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and it takes vulnerability to form connection… And if that isn’t blunt enough, the word religion, also coming from Latin roots, means to Bind; to Connect.

It takes courage to be vulnerable and it takes vulnerability to form connection… this is the work of religious people.

Now, some of you may be thankful that your minister’s one sermon or one message is not this, not the Spirituality of Imperfection. But for me, this is what it all comes down to. It’s always the same message, always the same Good News, always the same sermon: In order to work to heal the world, in order to build the beloved interdependent community, in order to stay present to ourselves and our relationships here and now, we must be willing to know thyself — and not just know thyself — the ancient wisdom got it wrong — know thyself and offer thyself in all our true and authentic and therefore imperfect wholeness. Offer our imperfections and wholeness to ourselves, to one another, to whatever it is we call the sacred — recognizing that if we are lucky enough, others will do the same.

Know thyself and offer thyself fully, celebrating the imperfections that will, without question, bump up against one another, be in conflict with one another, grow because of one another, and change the way we live and do and be because of these imperfections… because of our whole selves, known and offered…

Even though it would be easier to protect and present and perfect.

Brene Brown concludes her TED talk with a stark reality that we are all too aware of:

We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. You cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, “Here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, grief, shame, disappointment, I don’t want to feel these; I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.” You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other emotions. When we numb the hard feelings, we numb joy, we numb gratitude; we numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we seek purpose and meaning and then we feel vulnerable so then we have a couple of beers and banana nut muffin.

The thing about those detox patients, is that after all the numbing failed, there was nowhere to go. Sure, the door was locked but for those who truly wanted to be rid of their addictions, to take control of their lives and live fully into their gifts… like I think we each strive to do — they had nowhere to go but authentically, and entirely, looking at real and painful imperfections, with others who were daring, begging, desperately doing the same.

It was, in the ways that prophets describe the perfect community, a sea of courageously vulnerable tired people, sharing their imperfections and creating, what I knew, for the first time, to be church. Here are Kurtz and Ketcham again:

A spirituality of imperfection suggests that the first prayer is a scream, a cry for help. “O God, come to my assistance / O Lord, make haste to help me,” reads Psalm 70 sung for over a millennium and a half at the beginning of each monastic hour. … At the beginning of the modern age, the nineteenth-century nun St. Therese of Lisieux rediscovered the original sense of prayer as a cry for help. …echoing the crucified Jesus, she began each of her personal prayers, “I thirst!”

I thirst!

When first discovering her new spirituality, Anne Lamott offers a different prayer, “not the usual old prayer,” Lamott explains, “of “God I am such a loser,” but new ones — “Hi” and “Thank you.”

A Spirituality of Imperfection, I think, may be the hardest kind. It asks us to look courageously and vulnerably at who we are, not just who we want or think we ought to be, and celebrate it, not as unchanging or unchangeable, but as Sacred and Holy. A Spirituality of Imperfection celebrates the mess, failure, death, mistakes and the pieces of ourselves and others that we just can’t stand; celebrate them as the proverbs and teachings of the prophets that we are and the prophetic lives we can live.

A Spirituality of Imperfection begs us, for the sake of connection, for the sake of joy and gratitude and happiness, to fight the want to numb or to deny or reject who we are, our whole story, told from our whole hearts. It begs us to know thyself, and offer thyself. A Spirituality of Imperfection listens when you say I thirst. And in response it says, good. Thirst. Need, crave, know your incompleteness, your imperfections, and seek nourishment and sustenance from those who see and hear you in your human be-ing.

It is time to write a new trinity, friends. It is time that we look at, and celebrate, the life lived by courage, vulnerability and connection. How different this world might be, if Divinity was known by authenticity that was shared.

May we know the beauty of our vulnerability.

May we be courageous in our explorations and offerings.

And may we know binding, connecting faith that is known by its imperfect humans be-ing.

Blessed be.

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