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

 

Today

Today’s the day

Some days make it all worthwhile. They make up for all the frustration and problems on the other days. They make us forget the pain and heartache that other days bring. Today is one of those days. 

Today. It’s a day that has been much anticipated. My friend, who had to flee her homeland and leave her children behind, has had many of the difficult days. This is not one of them.

Today. It’s a day full of trains and planes, transport questions and logistics. Today is a day that my friend thought would never come.

Today. On the difficult days, my friend talked to her children on WhatsApp. She watched them grow up and form memories that didn’t include her.

Today. As she struggled to make a place for herself in Belgium and to be able to bring her children here, she found amazing reserves of resilience and resourcefulness. But some days she doubted that today would ever come. 

Today. It’s a day that has been scheduled and postponed; it has been planned and those plans canceled. The frustration around it is immense.

Today. It’s a day when two little girls will get to see their mother and hug her and smell her and feel her breath on their cheeks for the first time in almost half their lives.

Today. It’s a day that a mother gets to hold her children and touch them and smell them and feel their tears on her cheek for the first time in almost half their lives. 

Today. It’s the day that the girls get to tell their mom about the adventure they’ve had: airplanes, trains, automobiles, new people new languages new countries.

Today. There will be a lot of tears shed here today. That’s OK.

Today. Today is the day this miracle happens, and I get to be a witness.

Today’s the day.

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? 

On Being Happy

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action.

I have just received an email canceling plans for a lunch date which I have been looking forward to. When I look beyond my disappointment, I am reminded that we often don’t recognize the gifts that are given to us, because they don’t come in the form we want or expect. Sometimes they come in a different wrapping and so we leave them unopened and unacknowledged. For me, these canceled plans give me the opportunity to spend the day with my husband reading and writing  – a gift I hadn’t expected. 

There is a wonderful phrase in French: “être bien dans sa peau”, which means to be good in one’s skin. It means simply to be comfortable with life. This, I think, is what it means to be happy: to walk cheerfully over the world, knowing that we have a place, and to be at peace with the world and with others. I believe that this is our natural state, and that we often block it with fears and resentments and conflict. 

We have everything we need to be happy in this life. How do we do it then? How do we find the gifts in the everyday? How do we remove the blocks to being “good in our skin”? 

I once had a friend who was always in a good mood, no matter what was going on. She had the gift of finding humor and laughter in whatever life threw at her. I asked her how she did it, and she told me that she had survived a terminal illness several years before I met her. “I’m not supposed to be here”, she said, “every day is a gift.” How can we find that attitude? Do we have to almost die to be happy? 

As I look at the people in my life who are truly happy, it’s not the ones who have the most or the ones who have the easiest lives. It’s often the ones who have the least and who have been through ordeals that I don’t know if I could survive who have found the key to being good in their skin. . 

Someone once told me that there’s a difference between wanting to be happy and choosing to be happy. One of them is an action. Seems easy enough, but it’s not. I can’t hold my breath and ‘be happy’. It takes some work. 

First I have to let go of some things: 

  • Expectations/entitlement
  • Judgment
  • Comparing myself to others
  • Jealousy
  • The need to be special
  • Perfectionism
  • Toxic relationships.

These are all things that separate me from other people, isolating me in my tiny mind – truly a bad neighborhood. 

Then I have to find some things: 

  • acceptance – I stop fighting what I can’t change
  • connection: to self, to God, to others. It is the connection to others that I have missed in Covid times. 
  • joy – which flows from the feeling of connection,

Then I have to give some things away:

  • Love – In order to have it you have to give it away
  • Things/possessions/money
  • Time – the span of my life is measured in time. I give it away by ‘spending’ it making the world a little better for others. Or maybe just making my small corner of it better. Letting my life speak. 

It’s not an easy path to walk. It gets narrower and narrower as we go along. Once we set our feet on it we are drawn along trying not to be distracted by the side-turnings. Often I fail. But sometimes, just sometimes, it works. 

Photo by Goppang Nyarta

Welcoming the Stranger

Like many Friends I have been struggling with how to help with the influx of refugees from Ukraine. My particular struggle is with the fact that these are being welcomed very differently from others.

I find myself outraged by the overt racism in the journalistic coverage. I am frustrated by the sudden willingness of governments to open their borders to white Europeans when they have been closed to brown and black people fleeing the same devastation. 

In the UK for example, Eurostar will give free tickets to Ukrainians going to the UK, and the UK government is offering 350 pounds a month to host Ukrainians. When the refugees were Syrian, potential hosts were required to raise thousands of pounds under the community sponsorship programs, and their air transport was arranged by the UNHCR. When the refugees are African, their transport is small boats across the Channel. They are housed in abandoned hotels and barracks for months and sometimes years before their asylum claims are processed. 

I have not joined the vigils for Ukraine. I keep asking “where are those same vigils for Syria? Afghanistan? Palestine? Yemen? Darfur? South Sudan?” I find myself judging those who are only now willing to help rather than being happy that there are so many. 

But Ukrainians also need support and welcoming the stranger is holy work. How can I support Ukrainians without supporting the racism behind their different welcome? How can I answer the call to welcome the stranger without taking away from the work that I am already doing with displaced people from Africa? 

Maybe I can help by supporting those who are new to this work. I can pass on what I have learned about supporting people who have lost their homes and their families. 

So here’s some of what I have learned, in no particular order:

  • Respect the dignity of people who have no possessions left. This is not their whole life – it’s a difficult part that is not finished yet. 
  • Nobody wants to be somebody else’s project. Don’t insist on doing things that people can do for themselves. Give them agency wherever possible.
  • Listen when someone wants to talk, but remember that no one owes you their story. This is an important boundary to respect. 
  • Try to find games to play that don’t require vocabulary. Twister and Jenga are good fun.
  • Cook with them, not for them, to the extent possible. Sharing food is an essential human interaction. Let them show you their food and through that, their culture. It will be different from yours. 
  • Learn a few words in Ukrainian. Teach them your language. 
  • Find ways that they can give back to you without being your servant. For example, someone with a little English can translate for someone who has none. 
  • Ask them what they need, but also watch. Not everyone is good at articulating their needs or willing to ask for help. 
  • Don’t look for gratitude or smiles. They will feel pressure to be grateful, but also resentment that they are in this position. Let them mourn the life they had. 
  • God’s hands brought them to you and for the time being you are the hands that God has to help them. When it’s time, you will release them back into God’s hands.
  • Build a community to help you in this work. Find others around you who are doing this too and share your experiences with them. Learn from theirs.  
  • Above all, take good care of yourself. You will begin to feel some of the trauma that they are experiencing. Find a way to shed that. They need you whole. 
  • Be prepared to be changed and enriched by this experience.

Photo by Ahmed akacha from Pexels

The Cult of Perfection

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential.

We are told that master carpet weavers purposely introduce an error in their pattern because only God is perfect, and to weave a perfect carpet would be an affront to God. 

So much to unpack here. The first thing is the problematic reasoning that says that only God is perfect, and so I have to be sure to be imperfect. This totally ignores the fact that if the first is true the second is not necessary. If only God is perfect, why do I need to be sure to make something imperfect? COULD I make something perfectly if I am not God? Presumably not. 

So why do we have to go out of our way to make something imperfect? Is there not a kind of hubris, a sort of spiritual showing off that requires us to wear our peity as a shining garment of forced imperfection? 

Then there is the question of why God would need for us to be sure to not be perfect. Is God that jealous? It seems to me to be a form of pettiness that is very human and not Godlike at all. We continue to imagine God in human form, with our own imperfections. Which means that the God we imagine cannot be perfect after all. 

But for me there is a deeper question. Given that we are created imperfect, what if God sometimes needs for us to be perfect? What if one day we have this amazing gift to have a perfect day or to do one thing absolutely perfectly? In the context of our imperfection, one shining example of perfection would be such a gift. Why would we intentionally foul it? Why would we want to not accept it? What does this mean for our relationship with God, with the world? 

What happens to perfect people? Do we really know any? Perhaps a better question is what happens to the ones who are most like Jesus, who try to bring the love of God to the world by working for equality and justice and (e.g.) civil rights? What happens to the ones whose work threatens the power structures of the world? MLK, Rosa Luxemburg, Gandhi. 

And yet none of these were perfect. We hear stories about our heroes that illuminate their feet of clay. That prove to us that they were not perfect. Often the response to this is to withdraw respect for them and their work. Why are we so reluctant to admire someone who has faults? What if we could understand that they did this amazing work in spite of these imperfections? That even with feet of clay they could practice the commandment that we love one another? 

Because if they could do their work without being perfect, perhaps we can too. Our imperfections, our feet of clay, should not prevent us from doing the work we are called to do. I believe that it is our imperfections which force us into relationship with others, which completes us. 

When my weakness is supplemented by another’s strength in the same area, we both become complete. To make this happen, we need to understand and accept (even appreciate) our own weaknesses as well as the strengths and weaknesses of others. When we can see how these complement each other we can do things together that neither of us could do alone. It’s only when our imperfections are completed by the gifts of others that we become complete. Not I, but we

It’s time to give up the cult/illusion of perfection, which keeps us from achieving our spiritual potential. 

Practicing Equality

We do not have ‘degrees’ of Quakerliness. The Quaker way is more complicated and more subtle.

I often hear the phrase “weighty Quaker”. When I was new to Quakers, I thought this was something to aspire to. It seemed to convey the idea that this was someone in whose voice I would hear Truth, that this was someone who practiced our values thoroughly. 

As time has given me more experience with Quakers as human beings, however, I understand that this is sometimes used to convey that one among us is ‘more equal’ than the others and that their voice should be heard more loudly. It’s often evoked to give more authority to the speaker, as if they were holders of a Truth that we could only access through them. But the Quaker way tells us that we can all access Truth through our connection to the Divine, and our testimony of equality tells us that none of us has special access to this Truth. 

Similarly, I often hear that something or someone is ‘unquakerly’. As a new Quaker, I wanted to avoid this at all costs. I used to ask what it meant, but could not find a satisfying or even a consistent answer. As my experience with this phrase and those who use it has grown, I have come to understand that it often simply means that the speaker doesn’t like something but has no other argument against it. 

I have recently heard another phrase along these same lines: “a Quaker’s Quaker”, meant to convey the idea that this person is perfectly Quaker, and should not be doubted. That what they say must be accepted as Truth, and any other points of view ignored. Sort of the Quaker version of speaking ex cathedra

This makes me think about a Quaker career path: seeker, attender, member, weighty Quaker, Quaker’s Quaker. And this makes my heart hurt. We do not have ‘degrees’ of Quakerliness. We are not Freemasons. 

Instead, the Quaker way is more complicated and more subtle. We are all sometimes speakers of Truth, and we are all sometimes caught up in pride and ego and fear and willfulness which block our access to the divine. It is true that some Friends seem to understand how to avoid this block more often than others, but as soon as we label them as ‘weighty’, we can almost guarantee that the path will be blocked for them. 

As with all pedestals, it’s often others who place us there. When we place one Friend above another, we give them false value, and then we become disillusioned when they cannot live up to our unrealistic expectations. It’s important to remember that our testimony of equality is also about humility, and when we wrap ourselves in Quaker values and judge others as unquakerly, we put ourselves on a pedestal above them. The fall from a pedestal is a long one.  

We hear about Quaker values: peace, truth, equality, simplicity, community, stewardship. We do not have to be Quaker to work for Quaker values. We should remember that we do not own these values, nor do we have a monopoly on them. Sometimes the lives of non-Quakers speak these values louder than the lives of ‘weighty’ Quakers. Or Quaker’s Quakers. 

What if we end this separation of Friends into degrees of worthiness and try to treat each other as equal? Let’s think about dropping these labels, stop judging each other’s worthiness, and begin to weigh each others’ words against the Truth we find in worship. Let’s embrace our testimony to equality and try to listen for Truth in the voices of all Friends and friends. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

A Blessing

.

This was written by my Friend Mig Kerr as blessing for companions on a course entitled “Nurturing our Spiritual Lives through Spiritual Direction” She has allowed me to publish it here.

March 2021

may our days be spacious
and our nights full of dreams;
may we reach daily into the well of wisdom 
deep within

may we become aware of promptings
and bring them into the Light,
where they can unfold
and show their path

may we have companions to ride the waves with us,
even when the shore is far away;
to explore the depths with us;
to hold us in the dark:
to remind us that the stars are shining
even if we cannot see them,
to draw our eyes to the little points of light
barely visible

may we be companions to others,
walking alongside in love,
sensitive to the movings of the spirit
within and between us,
listening with the ears of our hearts

Mig Kerr

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