Several years ago, a well-known minister was invited to give the homily at a Union Gospel Mission. The Union Gospel Mission is an urban ministry, providing food, shelter and recovery for homeless men. Before the meal, the men are invited to “attend” a church service. For the majority, if not all, it meant, “endure.” The minister, in his own way, participated reluctantly, not quite seeing the point in preaching–or giving the “good news”–to an unenthusiastic audience. After the service, while being escorted to his car, he vented to the Mission Director, “I have to tell you, that was a complete waste of my time. My calendar is already full; I certainly did not need to add this. Although I admit that I feel for you. I don’t know how you do it, working with people where you can’t really make a difference.”
The Director thanked the minister for visiting the Mission, said his goodbyes, and added, “By the way. You may want to know; I used to be one of them.”
I’m sure that there are a lot of reasons for the minister’s tirade. We have different language for such episodes. “I almost lost it completely.” “That’s it; I give up.” “I can’t take anymore.”
And we vent…
When we are tired.
When we feel inadequate or vulnerable.
When we feel guilty for wasting time.
And we vent when we are afraid.
Here’s the deal: I believe that the well-known minister saw himself in those men. Such a reflection (some part of us unsightly, unrefined, or broken) is unnerving if we have spent our life trying to be “somebody,” creating a persona, or an artifice of achievement. Novelist Susan Howatch calls it our “glittering image.”
Sometime ago, walking through the lobby in an upscale hotel, I found myself carried along by a stream of people dressed in formal wear, on their way to an “event.” Off to the side, I watched a father fussing over his young son’s tie. The boy–maybe three or four–is dressed in a full suit replete with bow tie, his blonde hair neatly parted and combed. I hear his father say, “Okay. Now remember. This is very important. You need to be on your very best behavior.” The little boy nods his head, wanting to make certain that he makes his Daddy proud.
Somewhere along the way, we buy the notion that our very identity hinges on how well we keep that promise. I can tell you that I know this is how it happened in my own life. “Whatever you do,” the voice in my mind still whispers. “Don’t ever let anyone see how uncomfortable that suit really is.”
So we wear it, the suit or role or label or mask, and eventually grow accustomed to it. Of course, my “suit” changed, as I grew older. Just like that minister, I did my best to create an image of togetherness, well-being, and success. And above all else, control.
No wonder brokenness unnerves me. No wonder I pretend I have my act together (even when I don’t). No wonder I’m tired at the end of the day.
“I always wanted to be somebody,” Lily Tomlin mused. “I just should have been more specific.”
I suppose that I wanted to be “impressive.” Maybe that was my “suit.” Somehow, I’ve assumed that making a difference can only happen by being notable (which is fueled by public opinion.) And Lord knows you can’t be impressive if there are visible chinks in the armor. After all, we still live in a world where any sign of weakness is best left unmentioned. So. We distance our self from the discomfort and stain of incompleteness (or feeling of failure), and from any resemblance to “them.”
What a dance. And it’s hard to erase, isn’t it? This gnawing sensation that there is a part of us beyond redemption. (Of course, that is the part I do my best to hide. Or pretend exists only in “them.”)
But what if? What if the reality of spirituality (of our spiritual journey and our spiritual “wholeness”) finds a home in this sense of incompleteness? What if it is okay that we are still “unfinished?”
In the NYT sports section this morning, a story about Olympic swimming phenom Grant Hackett and his struggles with personal demons, “It’s hard when you’ve done something that many people see as extraordinary, but as a person you’re not,” he explains. Made even more difficult when you try to conquer the brokenness (anxiety and depression) as if they are swimming rivals.
Becoming whole (letting our authentic self breathe) is not about winning and losing.
In Yearnings, Rabbi Irwin Kula explains, “This is the essential paradox of human life: We are always and inevitably incomplete, on the way, slipping and sliding, making mistakes. But the ancient voices insist that this is not failure; it is rather the necessary reflection of the paradox that we are. Paradox is the nature of be-ing human, of human being.”
So, here’s the good news. If we recognize that we are still unfinished. . .
Instead of venting, we will find Grace.
Instead of venting, we will give ourselves the permission to slowly unmask, and remove the glittering image we hide behind.
Instead of venting, not only do we find redemption (and sanctuary and hope and mercy), but freely offer these gifts to those whose paths we cross.
Instead of venting, we can bring this self to this day. Unafraid. And without apology. No longer diminished by the broken places.
This week I watched Brother Sun Sister Moon, and read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. About a transparent and unflinching reckoning. Why? Because brokenness is not the enemy.
This week we see our world and planet traumatized; broken places in Puerto Rico and Mexico. An ongoing reminder that we are in this together.
I didn’t preach at a Union Gospel Mission this weekend, but I did have the pleasure of meeting new friends and talking with a group of people on a webinar this week about presence. You can find the replay here. We talked about the freedom that comes when we no longer need to pretend we have our act together. Where we give up our need to be perfect and our need to be in control. Where we admit with confidence, “I used to be one of them.”
And Grace meets us there.
Autumn equinox this past week. Night and Day the same.
And Rosh Hashanah, Jewish New Year. L’Shana Tova to all.
I’ve always loved the autumn garden, because it seems so unpretentious in its beauty. With the vigor of early spring gardens, the robustness of summer, autumn gardens are for sipping wine, savoring the late rose blooms and letting go of the “to-do” list that still lingers. Autumn gardens remind us that we can pause; stare up into the roiling clouds and heavenly spectacle, and savor the gift. In nature, leaves and flowers often become more elegant as they die, as if they are offering the world a last and defiant look at their beauty. We’ve had rain, finally. It’s been over 3 months. So, just in time.
Quote for your week:
Those who hurt, are angry and have nothing left to give; they are my meeting place with God. Dorothy Day
POEMS AND PRAYERS
a neatly-scribed rising
sun in iridescent phase-change
moving through electric-
mauve vaporizing clouds
the long languid days of heat
finally catch up
to the winter chill
remnant in the deep earth
thick banks of recent water
drape over the islands and open sea
as if to suffocate
of herons at dawn
gleaning low tide shoreline
focussed, feeling pressed by memory
of relentless cold rain of dim winter days
but by afternoon
all will swelter
fog burned off
in the drowse of summer
Copyright 2010 by Luther Allen
A Time to Be Silent
There must be a time when we cease speaking
to be fully present with ourselves.
There must be a time when we exclude clamor
by listening to nothing whatsoever.
There must be a time when we forgo our plans
as if we had no plans at all.
There must be a time when we abandon conceits
and tap into a deeper wisdom.
There must be a time when we stop striving
and find the peace within.
David O. Rankin (U.U. Minister San Francisco)