The Gift of Imperfection

We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do.

I sometimes think about a quote attributed to Michelangelo, when asked how he could sculpt a leaf that looks so real. “You just cut away all the parts that don’t look like a leaf”. 

In a sense, we all sculpt ourselves. When we let go of all the parts that don’t really fit us, we discover who we really are. It’s sometimes difficult to let go of the image of ourselves that we have tried so hard to create. Often this is an image of perfection, but accepting our imperfection is an important part of discovering our true selves. The mistakes we make along the way are part of this process.

How often do we say, “If I’d known then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” And yet, if we had done things differently, we would not know what we know now. We would not be who we are now. We only know what we know now because of those mistakes. Without them, we would be a different person. 

When we realize that we are imperfect, when we fully accept that, we can begin to know ourselves. When we can do that, we can understand what we are called to do.

What if our weaknesses, our weird-nesses, were an important part of our ability to do the work we are called to do? 

Our weirdnesses can help us to carry the burden of our calling. For example, I think of Greta Thunberg, whose Asperger’s helps her to do what she does in spite of criticism and pressure that would cripple me. I also think of a local Friend, who can be vastly annoying when they want something, but who has been able to do amazing work in their community precisely because they do not accept “no” for an answer. In my work with anti-racism, the ability and willingness to be impolite and confrontational is sometimes needed to call out micro (or macro) aggressions. Or to speak truth to power. 

We are all imperfect. But we are perfectly suited to the work we are called to do. Does this mean that we don’t have to try to be our best selves? I don’t think so. There is a difference between wanting to be better and wanting to be perfect. 

It’s interesting to note that the word perfect originally did not mean “without flaws”. It meant “complete”. It is from the Latin per facere, to make complete. Something that is perfect is complete. When we are imperfect, we are incomplete. And it’s this incomplete-ness that means that we need others to complete us. This is the drive for community, for connection with others. 

Understanding this enables (or even requires) us to connect to other people in order to be perfect – in order to be complete. Understanding ourselves, warts and all, helps us understand what we bring to our ministry, and what we need to call on others to do. 

When we understand ourselves, we can carve our own leaves – cut away the parts we have tried to be that aren’t really us, and “sink down to the seed that God planted in us”. We can do what we have been admonished to do: love our neighbor as ourselves: as our true selves, not as we want to be seen, not as we hope that we are, not as others see us, nor as we are afraid we are. But as our true selves. This is liberating. 

That of God in everyone

Sometimes we find ourselves looking at the problems in today’s world and asking: Where is God in this? 

Sometimes we find ourselves looking at the problems in today’s world and asking: Where is God in this? 

As Quakers we say that we believe that there is That of God in everyone. But when we look around, is that really what we see? 

Do we see God when we look at the Friend who annoys us in Meeting for Worship; or the neighbor whose dog destroyed our peonies; or the child having a meltdown in the candy aisle of the supermarket; or the bus driver who leaves the bus stop just as we get there; or the homeless person on the street shouting at someone we can’t see; or the migrant sleeping in the park; or the police officer who takes that migrant’s belongings when they are absent; or the football hooligan throwing bottles; the capitalist investing in polluting energy; or the soldier who is fighting a dirty war?

When we look at all of these, can we see God there? If not, there is work to do. God is all around us. If sometimes God is hard to see maybe the problem is with our own vision.

We do well to remember that when we “other” a fellow human being, when we put a barrier between “us” and “them”, God is on the other side of that barrier, in the other person. So if God feels far away sometimes, who moved? 

Look around you. God is there. 

Photo by Daniel Frese on Pexels

 

A Simple Faith in a Complicated World

News!

Oh, wow. I’ve written a book! And now it has a publication date: 28 July 2023. That’s a long way off, but it will be available for pre-order before that, and a few review copies can be had even before that. If you’d like to write a review, please let me know and we’ll see if we can snag one of those.

Watch this space!

Love Our Neighbor as Ourselves

We are admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have always understood this to mean that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves

We are admonished to love our neighbors as ourselves. I have always understood this to mean that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. We should wish for them the same things that we have or wish or wish to have for ourselves: love, community, good health, adventure, challenging work, abundance, etc. This is hard to do sometimes, as we don’t see our neighbors as we see ourselves. We see our “insides” – all of our thoughts, wishes, fears, insufficiencies and inadequacies – but only their “outsides” – their accomplishments, the face that they turn to the world. 

And vice versa. They don’t know our vulnerabilities, our failures, our insecurities. They only see the face that we show the world, the face we don to protect ourselves. I wonder how we would react to the “us” that others see? So Robert Burns writes “oh, the gift that God would give us to see ourselves as others see us.” Or to love ourselves as others love us. Because sometimes we find another person who seems able to penetrate our defenses, to see through the walls we use to protect ourselves. Someone wo can see beyond the face that we turn to the world and see right into our wounded hearts. What a rare grace that is, a communion that can feel God-given, to have someone see us as we really are and to love us unconditionally.  

In Margery Williams’ classic children’s tale “The Velveteen Rabbit”, a stuffed rabbit became a real rabbit both metaphorically and literally. It happened because he was truly loved. It’s the metaphoric transformation though, that is usually quoted when referring to this work. “He didn’t mind how he looked to other people, because the nursery magic had made him Real, and when you are Real shabbiness doesn’t matter.” I believe that this is the love that we all seek. 

Another way to understand “Love our neighbor as ourselves” is to understand it to mean that we should love our neighbor as our true selves. As who we really are, not not as someone or something else. Not as who we want to be, or as who we want others to think we are, or as who they want us to be, or as they see us. But who we really are: imperfect, gifted and flawed, trying our best, trying to do better, trying the patience of others. 

In order to do this, we must open ourselves to others. We must show them the “insides” that we normally protect. We must become vulnerable. In becoming vulnerable we also become real. In becoming vulnerable, we invite others into the place where we truly live. We open ourselves to having the love we offer our neighbor returned, giving the possibility of a communion of souls that (as we see above) is rare. 

What do we need to do to love our neighbor as our true selves? How can we do this? We need to be able to sit in the fear and vulnerability that come when we let our walls down – not an easy thing. How can we as Quakers create a community where Friends can do this? What in our meetings signals that it is safe (or unsafe) to let down our walls? What in our meetings needs to change for Friends to be able to be their true selves? 

How can we create the sacred space that lets us love our neighbor as our true selves, a space where we can be who we really are, warts and all, and still feel loved? A space where we can become our God-loved selves? 

Becoming Our Best Selves

To be loved just as we are is a gift. To be worthy of this gift assumes that we strive to be our best selves. Being our best selves requires that we know and acknowledge our strengths and weaknesses. Further, that we explore the ways in which they relate to each other in order to stay as much as possible in the realm of our strengths. This relationship is not always obvious. However, sometimes it becomes clear with a little reflection. For example, I can be confident and I can be organized and I can be persistent. I can also be arrogant, controlling and stubborn. 

Exploring the relationships between our strengths and weaknesses shows us that they are often closely related: confidence and arrogance, for example, are two sides of the same coin. So are stubbornness and persistence, being organized and being controlling, and being discerning and being judgmental. And so on.

Often we try to get rid of our weaknesses as if they were defects – “quality control” errors or “black spots on our souls.” However, we can’t do that without getting rid of our strengths as well. They are inextricably linked. We are the way we are made, and granting the gift of persistence also adds the problem of stubbornness. I believe that it’s important to realize that our weaknesses are often also our strengths. We need them to do the work we are called to do. We have persistence for a reason – often our challenge is to keep it from hardening into stubbornness. 

Therein lies our challenge as human beings: to keep our strengths from becoming weaknesses in our everyday lives, where these weaknesses can threaten the links that bind our communities and our relationships with other people. 

Because our strengths are also our weaknesses, when we work to eliminate the weakness, we risk eliminating the strength. Instead of trying to eliminate one side of the gift we might look for the catalyst that turns a strength into a weakness, the secret ingredient that can turn us from the person we hope or want to be into the one we fear that we are. 

These strengths and weaknesses are related through one thing: fear. Specifically, the fear of losing something we have or not getting something we want. When I’m feeling confident and fear enters the equation, that confidence can slip over a line into arrogance. Conscientiousness can slip into workaholism. Persistence can slip into stubbornness. Peacebuilding can slip into people pleasing. And so on. 

We are called into ministry just as we are, with all our stuff. An important part of preparing ourselves for ministry or any important work is to understand our strengths and our weaknesses and how they are related. Because that tells us how to control or minimize the weaknesses to bring out our strengths when we need them. It’s the fear that we need to learn to control. 

It is up to us to keep on the right side of that line; to keep on the right side of fear. But how can we keep an open heart in a world that daily shows us its cruelty? How can we turn off the fear that makes our strengths into weaknesses and damages our relationships with others? 

I believe that the answer lies in faith. Faith that God will bring us through whatever ordeal we are struggling with. Faith that we will have what we need, even if it may not be what we think we need. Faith that we are held in the hand of God and will be ok, no matter what. 

Photo by Anna Kubak from Pexels

God’s hands

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite.

Perfect love drives out fear (1 John 4:18)

It is required you do awake your faith. (Shakespeare, The Winter’s Tale: 5.3.95)

This pandemic has shown how many of us need love to drive out the fear that has grown up around us in the last year. We all need love to quench the fires of fear and dread and the grief we feel for parts of our lives that are lost to us. How can we provide this for others when the love we need to find is drowned out by our own fear? How can we awake the faith that we need in order to do God’s work, to drive out fear with love when our own reservoir of love feels so depleted? 

We can remember that the love that comes from us is exhaustible/finite. The love that comes through us is infinite. The prayer of St. Francis reminds us that we can be a channel of God’s love for others. It’s up to us to keep that channel open, to not clog it with fear and anxiety and grief. 

It’s not only our family and friends who need our love to make their way in the world. Everyone we see is carrying the burden of these past months, in different ways and with differing levels of success. 

I see this most clearly with strangers who need loving support. For the past five years we have worked with people on the move. Not in large numbers, normally one or two at a time. They come to us having suffered all of the hellish things we hear about on the migrant routes. We see people who have escaped genocide, crossed the Sahara and been enslaved in Libya. They have lost friends crossing the Mediterranean, then crossed all the borders in Europe to get to Belgium, and we support them in this step of their journey.

And then, they move on.

It’s hard to see them go into the Channel, where we hope they reach England. And yet I’ve come to know that these are not my children, they’re God’s children and they’re in God’s hands. They always have been. 

For the part of their journey that is here in Belgium, we are God’s hands, and then we send them on; they will stay in God’s hands and they will stay God’s children. We just do our part here. Sometimes we can send them on to God’s hands in the form of other Quakers. But we send them on as God’s children. 

It’s an important part of my Quaker faith to bring God’s hands here to people who need it and just to know that it is good enough. That’s all I can do. I can’t follow them. I can’t protect them, I can’t guarantee them success. I have to release them back into those hands that brought them here. 

In the same way, I think it is also important to remember that our loved ones who are suffering from fear and grief are also God’s children. They may be lent to us, but they are ultimately God’s. We channel God’s love to them, and then let them go. 

It is required we do awake our faith – our faith that we will find the resources we need: financial, physical, spiritual, personal. That we will find the people who can help with the work when we need them, and that we will have the support we need to help our loved ones on to the next part of their journey. 

That we will be able to follow Jesus in the work he began: love one another. 

In Praise of the Weird

21.07 It is by our ‘imperfections’ that we move towards each other, towards wholeness of relationship. It is our oddities, our grittiness, the occasions when we hurt or are hurt, that challenge us to a deeper knowledge of each other. Our sins have been said to be stepping-stones to God. Quaker Faith and Practice of Britain Yearly Meeting, 5th edition

Many years ago, when I was in graduate school learning to be a psychologist, I took a class that was a little different from most. Buried in the study of psychological abnormalities was a course with the unappealing name of ‘mental hygiene’. It was essentially a class in normal psychology. 

Under the guidance of a Freudian psychoanalyst, we studied normal behavior. One day the professor said something that I will always remember: “normal isn’t always healthy, it’s just what most people do — it’s just average.” We learned that abnormal behavior is often a simple exaggeration of the normal – a matter of degree.

She went on to say that differences from normal, ‘weirdness’ if you will, can be a mark of a strong character and can often be found in those who make important contributions to their community. To emphasize that point, she said (with a chuckle), “do you realize that if I could have got my hands on Jesus Christ he would have been the best carpenter in the world?”

In this sense we are all abnormal. And that’s a good thing. It is our differences from the crowd that let us do the work we are called to do. Our weirdness, our not-normality is also often the thing that helps us to know what that work is. 

I think of this sometimes, and am reminded that often the things that most annoy us about others are the things that enable them to do the work that we admire.

For example, I believe that it was George Fox’s arrogance that allowed him to challenge the powers that be and to persevere in the face of great resistance and personal risk to found our spiritual community. I wonder if Greta Thunberg’s Aspergers allows her to resist the social pressure that would have crippled me as a teenager and to do what she knows is right. Closer to home, I think of a Friend who is annoyingly persistent when they want something, not taking no for an answer. That fact has allowed them to do amazing things in the local community. 

We are made the way we are for a reason, and we might think about exploring the usefulness our “not-normality” can bring to our community. We try to get rid of our weirdnesses, but they are also our strengths. We need them to do the work we are called to do. 

As Quakers we sometimes celebrate our collective differences from the mainstream, from the normal. Our acceptance of those differences, those ‘weirdnesses’, can allow Friends to feel empowered to do work that others shy away from: work with refugees, in prisons, against the arms trade. 

Other times we find ourselves uncomfortable with individuals who are different from the Quaker mainstream – those who have a different theology, a different accent, a different way of approaching our Meeting. 

What if we could accept our own and others’ weirdness as an integral part of the gifts they bring to our community? Would that change how we perceive and live with all of those who are not like us? Can we see the gift in the differences among those in our community? Can we show the love of God to those we would like to avoid? 

In-Between Spaces

How might we be transformed as we traverse the ‘in-between’ spaces?

I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about the ‘in-between’ spaces: that pause between inhale and exhale when there is neither; that moment when a ball thrown up is poised between rising and falling; that narrow space between fear and hope which is the place of faith. 

When I center down into worship I look for these ‘in-between” spaces. It’s here that I find the opening through which God can enter. It’s here that I lose myself and make the possibility of finding something greater than me. 

There is another in-between space, not so calm and sacred. It was famously described by Auschwitz survivor and psychotherapist Victor Frankl as the space between stimulus and response. In this space, he tells us, lies our power to choose. And in that choice lies our freedom and our growth. This is a place of possibility and power – the power to choose is the power to change.

Our current covid-limited lives feel like an in-between space for me. Sometimes it feels like the pause between inhale and exhale, or the momentary equilibrium of the ball in the air. But other times (most of the time, really) it feels like a crucible, a place of transformation, a place between nothing and infinite potential. Like Frankl’s in-between space, this feels like a place of possibility, a place poised between going forward and going back. What will we make of this, I wonder? 

The possibilities for change and transformation are many. On a personal level we can use this time to learn new skills, to adopt new habits, to mend broken relationships, or to stay the way we are. On a familial or community level we can grow closer or we can fragment and break. On a political level we can unify or divide. On an environmental level we can go back into ruin or move forward into the unknown world of new ways to live. Or perhaps just go back to a simpler way of life. 

Sometimes I am drawn into worry about the future or about someone I care about. When that happens I find myself in another ‘in-between’ space, this one between the things I hope for and the things I fear. While this space is in reality fairly wide, it can feel very narrow and if I’m not careful I can allow fear to take me in a spiral down into despair. This is the place of uncertainty. It is also the place of faith, where I can find the courage to simply take the next right step. 

I’ve recently been reminded of another Victor Frankl quote, to the effect that it’s not important what we expect of life, but rather what life expects of us. He follows that by saying that we should stop asking about the meaning of life. We should instead think of ourselves as being questioned by life.  Perhaps this covid ‘in-between’ time is life’s way of questioning us, of asking whether we will go forward or back, how we will grasp the possibility of this in-between space.

As Quakers, we are challenged to let our lives speak. As we traverse this ‘in-between’ space, how will we be transformed? How will the message of our lives speak anew? In the place between fear and hope, how will our faith manifest itself? Will we grasp the possibility and power of this time or will we squander it? When our lives speak, what will they say?  

Author’s note: The ideas here were honed in a worship sharing session with some members of Woodbrooke’s 2019-2021 Equipping for Ministry course.

For Our Sins

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left.

We are promised that Jesus “will come again in glory…”

I have always believed that Jesus isn’t coming again, because I don’t think he ever left. In every generation there are those prophetic voices echoing the message of Jesus: love one another and let your life speak. Often we kill them. Three examples would be Dr. Martin Luther King, Rosa Luxemburg and Mahatma Gandhi.

In a recent Woodbrooke course we learned that crucifixion was a political death – the Roman equivalent of being hanged, drawn and quartered. It was meant to be painful and public and humiliating. A warning to those who follow — both those who would come after and those who were his disciples.

We are told that Jesus died this death for our sins. To redeem us for the sins we have committed but also for the sins whose burden we carry that were committed by Adam and Eve, two people who didn’t actually exist historically. 

But what if Jesus didn’t die for our sins but because of our sins? Not to pay for our sins but because the sins we carried couldn’t let him and his message live? 

The sins that were responsible for this particularly cruel and harsh political death are still with us: pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire. And they are the ones responsible for the continued assassination of those who tell us that we are enough, that we are worthy of love and so is everyone else. They tell us that we should love one another because God loves us just as we are.They tell us that we are all equal and that none are more equal than others. When we can accept this we lose the need to dominate and control others. We also lose the ability to be dominated and controlled, which can be a dangerous thing.

Sin separates us from the love of God. These particular sins – pride, domination, ambition, control, lust for power, empire – also separate us from our fellow humans. This separation is part of what enables the dehumanizing process which allows us to kill each other. This separation is lost if we can believe that we are all equal in the eyes of God, who loves us just as we are; that is why this message is a threat to those who need for us to be able to kill each other. 

The message that God loves us is also the message that we are not separated from God. The radical danger of that message is that if we believe this then we don’t need elite power structures to ‘save’ us from ourselves and each other. We only need to know that we are loved and that we can pass that love to others. It’s that action of denying / dismantling the power structures that triggers the need to wipe out the ones who teach it, often in cruel and very public ways.

I believe that Jesus died not to save us from sin today but because he was saving people at that time and in that place, as those who are murdered today are saving people in this time and in this place. The need to dominate and control cannot allow this radical message of love and equality to continue to be spread.

What if we could hold the belief that we are good enough just as we are? Would we be able to give up the need to dominate and control others? Could we give up pride and ambition? Could we know that we don’t need to accomplish anything more than we have already done? What if we truly loved ourselves and others, as equal recipients of God’s grace? 

If we could do that we might be able to vanquish the sins which separate us from the love of God and thus cause the death of those who teach us to love one another. 

Photo by Jack B on Unsplash

Worship

Does God need worship from us? What does that mean?

Will Rogers famously said, “God created man in his image and man returned the favour.” We imagine God in our own image. I was raised with images of Jesus as a blue-eyed European who looked a little like my brother and God as an old white man standing on a cloud and judging us all. We not only create God in our image, we give God the gender of kings. 

I believe that these images and the ways in which we interact with them arose in a time and place where rulers needed to be sure of loyalty and fealty to hold on to their power. God was imagined as what was needed at that time – the ultimate ruler who would free God’s people from whoever was oppressing them. Thus the psalms speak of God protecting us from our enemies, smiting them and leading us to safe places.

Today we still interact with God based on the image of God as a powerful ruler, the king of kings, who will destroy our enemies and raise us up to a noble level above others. We worship God and sing praises and continually tell God how great God is. 

We know these physical images of Jesus and God are not really the right ones and many of us have no problem with re-imagining God in other images. We begin to see reconstructed images of Jesus as he might actually have looked. But how do we feel when we are asked to interact with God differently, in ways that are reflections of a new imagining of God? Not as a powerful ruler who will protect us but as a loving presence who can guide us and show us how to love others. 

Take, for example, the expectation that we will worship God, i.e. to acknowledge the worth of God, to show admiration for God, and to adore God. Does God really want this? Does God need our approval? Did Jesus in the manger need to be worshipped by the Magi, to be told how great he was? In truth, he probably could have used a room at the inn, some clean swaddling clothes and a bodyguard to protect him from Herod.

I do not believe that God cares where I worship God or even if I do. I don’t think I will find God in meeting houses or churches or holy sites – unless I bring God with me. God doesn’t live in sacred places, God lives in sacred actions, in how we treat each other and how we show the love of God in our lives.

The amazing fact of Quaker worship is that we sit in silence not to tell God how great God is (surely God has better things to do than listen to that?). No, in silence together we wait. Sometimes, only sometimes, we feel a connection to God and to the ones around us and if we’re very lucky, to ourselves. Our true selves. 

When that happens, we have our marching orders—“pick up your cross and follow me”. The message is clear: not “worship me”, but “follow me.” Feed the hungry, tend the sick, welcome the stranger, let your life speak. Take the love you’ve been given unconditionally and pass it on. Give it to others who need it, who need to feel that miraculous connection that was given to you. 

I believe that bringing the kingdom of God to earth is about bringing the love of God to the earth. One person, one action at a time. 

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