Unfinished

Her words were riveting, as twenty-two-year-old National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman read her poem at President Biden’s inauguration.

When day comes we ask ourselves,
where can we find light in this never-ending shade?
The loss we carry, a sea we must wade
We’ve braved the belly of the beast
We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace
And the norms and notions of what just is
Isn’t always just-ice
And yet the dawn is ours before we knew it
Somehow we do it
Somehow we’ve weathered and witnessed
a nation that isn’t broken but simply unfinished.

What if you and I, too, are not broken, but simply unfinished? I definitely classify myself as unfinished. I certainly am compared to previous generations when young women of means would attend a “finishing school” where they learned the social graces and etiquette of the upper class.

I had a conversation last week with several leaders and colleagues about how difficult and “unfinished” this time is. Our clergy are tired, stressed, and worried for many reasons: COVID-19; racism; the upcoming General Conference, with votes around human sexuality; how to reinvent themselves in worship and ministry; the inability to do face-to-face pastoral care; financial stress in our congregations; anxiety and depression; a contentious presidential election; and the January 6 attack on the Capitol. How can we gain our bearings? What will center us? I’ve often felt like Jacob, limping away from Peniel. Certainly, we’re unfinished. We have a long way to go.

The reality of my unfinished nature sank in a few years ago when I woke up early one summer Sunday morning, ready to preach, having arrived at Lakeside (Ohio) Chautauqua the afternoon before. I went out for a run and took a shower. Then chaos ensued. My brush wasn’t in my purse where it always is. I’ll adjust, I said to myself. I put on my suit, only to discover that the skirt was missing. I’d had the skirt dry-cleaned and didn’t put it back with the blouse and jacket. Okay, I’ll wear the other suit. Then I realized that there was no hairdryer in the cottage where I was staying. Oh well, nothing I can do about it now. Finally, I put on my hose, only to find a run in a very prominent place. Fortunately, I always travel with an extra pair.

I don’t know if other clergy are like me, but Sunday morning is the absolute worst time of the week for things to go wrong! All of my problems could have easily been fixed had I been at home, but when you are on the road, you have to improvise. As I ate breakfast, deciding whether to laugh or cry, I noticed an envelope in my briefcase labeled “Wabi-sabi Project.” It had been there for a year, but I’d forgotten all about it.

I opened the envelope and there were four small seashells glued to the top of a matchbox, each shell slightly imperfect. I laughed out loud, realizing that the friends who unknowingly put the envelope in my briefcase for such a time as this was saying to me gently but firmly, “Laurie, you are God’s wabi-sabi project. Forget about perfection. You are unfinished. You’ll never look perfect anyway, so just get on with worship.” Which I did.

Wabi-sabi is a Japanese word that describes the art of discovering beauty in what is imperfect and incomplete. It was fourteen years ago that I found the word I was seeking to describe the reality of my life. Wabi sabi: broken, scarred, messy, unfinished. In the fall of 2001, I was on a three-month renewal leave. Actually, it was more like a glorified time-out. After twenty years of ministry, I finally realized that perfection and ministry don’t mix well.

Unfortunately, it’s in my DNA to try to do everything well. Half-hearted is not in my vocabulary. I never wake up in the morning deciding to be mediocre that day. No one forces me to be a perfectionist. I just am. When skills don’t come naturally, I work harder. I am probably the only person ever to go through eight years of college and graduate school without ever going to a party! I was either in the library or the practice room.

As an adult entering the professional ministry as well as parenthood, I gave up perfection in some areas in order to pursue it in others. With three children close in age, I decided that my house was always going to look “lived in” and didn’t bother cleaning up every day. Gourmet meals (never my strength!) went out the door, replaced by macaroni and cheese and spaghetti. I gave up soccer mom gold status and let the other mothers sew homemade Halloween costumes and lead the PTA.

Meanwhile, I was attempting to raise reasonably normal children with the crazy hours of a local church pastor married to another local church pastor. The result? Failure around every corner. Susanna’s name slipped my mind, and she wasn’t happy when I called her Karen. I missed Joe’s surgery, and he wasn’t pleased. I forgot to show up to say a prayer at a banquet and was never invited back. I had what I thought was a grace-filled come-to-Jesus-meeting with a staff member, and he was mad. I couldn’t make it to one of our children’s Honor Society induction because I was at an out-of-state conference. I rushed to an evening meeting in mismatched shoes. Thank God for God’s saving grace! I am grateful for the churches I served that thrived and grew, but it was by no means perfect. I certainly wasn’t!

Over the years, wabi-sabi has taught me to recognize the unfinished beauty of my life and of all creation: the half-burned candle; a mishmash of rocks in a cairn; the knotty pine chair; Jacob’s limp; the wounded healer; a starfish with one arm broken off; the wooden table with one short leg; the pottery jar with a crack; a dying tree; the apostle Paul’s brashness; a struggling local church that nevertheless reaches the poor in a way no other church in the community can. Authentic faith embodies wabi-sabi. Despite my earnest efforts, I am still unfinished. As the saying goes, I’m not perfect, but I’m forgiven.

Can perfection actually be harmful, then? Can our insistence on doing everything “just right” get in the way of enjoying our life with God? Perhaps there is a deeper issue here than mere perfectionism.

I’ve been thinking lately about a quote from the author E. B. White, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, it would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to save the world and a desire to savor the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

E.B. White gets to the heart of our dilemma as Christ-followers. When Jesus becomes a part of our everyday life, we exude passion: a call to save the world in whatever way God asks us, whether as clergy or lay persons. But because there is so much to be saved, we are never done. We often put off savoring the world and doing the things that give us joy so that we can devote all our energy to saving the world. Which can then lead to over-functioning, compassion fatigue, lack of balance, and brokenness.

I yearn for a faith that releases others to both save and savor. I believe in tending our own souls as well as others’ souls. I want to be part of a church that does not make people feel guilty for stepping away from ministries for a time in order to regain balance. I want to honor the paradox of personal and social holiness, faith, and works. And I want to celebrate my most spectacular failures not as brokenness but as simply part of my unfinished nature. Could it be that wabi-sabi is a prerequisite to deep, mature spiritual growth?

I am probably never going to awake in the morning deciding to be mediocre. But I’d rather be authentic and whole than perfect. Just as our church, nation, and world are unfinished, so, too, am I. How about you?

Finish then Thy new creation, Pure and spotless let us be
Let us see Thy great salvation, Perfectly restored in Thee

Changed from glory into glory, ‘Til in Heaven we take our place
‘Til we cast our crowns before Thee, Lost in wonder, love and praise.

Charles Wesley: Love Divine All Loves Excelling

The Gumbo Coalition

Have you ever eaten gumbo? Gumbo is the most famous and popular dish in Louisiana. The most familiar gumbos are made with seafood, chicken, and/or sausage and might also include okra. The foundation of gumbo is roux, which is a mixture of fat and flour that holds the soup together. When times were difficult in Louisiana, people threw into the pot whatever they had for a gumbo meal. Just as it takes different kinds of foods and spices to make a good gumbo, so positive change takes place in our world when various constituencies work together.

Marc Morial grew up in the South during segregation and watched his father, Ernest Nathan (Dutch) Morial, become the first African American mayor of New Orleans in 1977. Marc learned from his father and others that progress is possible if different groups can come together into a melting pot that includes African Americans, Whites, Latinos, and Asians. The melting pot also consists of blue-collar workers, business leaders, clergy, grassroots community activists, and ordinary citizens who work alongside one another to reduce crime, provide meaningful jobs, and learn how together to make New Orleans a city of opportunity for all.

When Marc ran for mayor of New Orleans at age 36 in late 1993 and early 1994, he decided to call his election effort “The Gumbo Coalition.” By including an incredible mixture of all of New Orleans’s “ingredients,” Morial created a gumbo that was able to produce meaningful change and rebuild the reputation of New Orleans with such purpose that the city was able to secure an NBA franchise, multiple Super Bowls, and the Essence Festival, the largest African American event in the nation. Marc Morial served as the major of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002, was the President of the US Conference of Mayors in 2001, and has been the president of the civil rights organization, the National Urban League, since 2003.

In 2020, Morial published a book called The Gumbo Coalition; 10 Leadership Lessons that Help You Inspire, Unite, and Achieve. The Gumbo Coalition can be summarized by one sentence: Great leaders are able to unite various constituencies in service to a common cause. In other words, gumbo is not only a way of doing business, it’s a way of being in the world. I cannot imagine a more important challenge for people of faith in this time in which we are living.

When Morial became mayor, New Orleans had the highest murder rate in the country. During the next eight years, he was able to address the city’s out-of-control crime rate, police corruption, integration of schools, the rebuilding of safe neighborhoods, and transparency of leadership.

Marc Morial shares ten leadership principles that form the heart of The Gumbo Coalition. These principles are applicable to many different organizations, including the church.

Section One: The Kid Who Would be Mayor

  1. Speed Means Nothing Without Direction; A Leader Must Get off to a Fast Start with a Solid Plan
  • Have a plan and make sure that your plan matches your vision.
  • Align people and resources necessary for execution and overcommunicate your plan clearly and repetitively and to everyone involved.
  1. A Wise Person Changes, a Fool Never; A Leader Recognizes when to Modify the Plan
  • If the plan needs to be tweaked, evaluate if the change will benefit or harm your overall objectives and communicate the change as needed.
  1. With One Canoe, We Can Avoid the Waterfall; A Leader Understands the Value of Building Consensus
  • Communicate one-on-one to allow people to be heard and know where everyone’s “itch” is. Adopt a win-win approach.

Section Two: Senator, I Call Them People

  1. They’re Not Refugees, Dammit; A Leader Shows Strength Through Compassion
  • When Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana in 2005 and 16,000 homeless people flooded the Superdome in New Orleans, community leaders were criticized for showing a lack of empathy and ignoring the horror. They were essentially missing in action.
  • A good leader is able to channel pain into a constructive response. Do the right thing, even if it is not popular.
  1. Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em; A Leader is Skilled at Decision-Making Under Pressure
  • Consult with your most trusted people to make wise decisions collaboratively and have the courage to know when it’s necessary to change course.
  1. Get Ready for the Big Payback; A Leader is Not Paralyzed by the Unexpected
  • Recognizing and responding quickly and wisely to surprise through best practices helps gain buy-in.

Section Three: The Ditch

  1. Ants versus Crabs; A Leader Knows When to Lead and When to Follow
  • Crabs in a barrel survive by crawling over others to the top. Pulling other people down into a ditch in order to elevate yourself does not create coalitions that effect change.
  • When there is a clash of cultures, cross the ditch. Work in harmony with others like ants do.
  1. Working the Room; A Leader Builds Networks with Intention
  • Networking is about finding purpose in every situation by listening to the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of others.

Section Four: A Knock on the Door

  1. Persistence is Always a Winning Formula; A Leader Fights Through Disappointments to Achieve Victory
  • Learning from our own mistakes is a continual process. Rather than wallow in failure, get back up and keep moving forward.
  1. Innovation requires Seeing New Paths; A Leader Must Seek New Ways to Solve Old Problems
  • Creating systems to grow and improve consensus-building stimulates life-long learning and enhances collective buy-in.

What is the key to a good gumbo? Why, it’s the roux, the mixture of fat and flour that holds the soup together. That means good planning; listening, learning, and modifying; connecting, consulting, and collaborating; learning from mistakes; and seeing new paths. By promoting consensus building and creating community strength in service to a common cause, we, too, can form Gumbo Coalitions that transcend all barriers and transform our world in the name of Jesus Christ.

 

Let Your Eyes Shine!

I have taken up a new hobby over the past year. I am on the lookout for shining eyes. Like everyone else, Gary and I wear a mask whenever we are in a public setting. Masks have become a symbol of the seriousness of COVD-19. I enjoy the whimsy of masks and how they can symbolize our creativity, individuality, and perseverance. At the same time, I have moved beyond focusing solely on masks to the search for shining eyes.

Over this past year, I have adjusted to no longer being able to see people’s facial expressions. But I can look into their eyes. Sometimes the eyes are dim, and I sense depression, anxiety, fear, and hopelessness. Other times, the eyes are shining with love, joy, peace, possibility, and hope for the future.

Did you see it during the inauguration ceremonies? No, we could not see the faces of members of Congress, dignitaries, and guests who were present. But from President Joe and First Lady Jill Biden, to National Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman, to singer Garth Brooks, the shining eyes were radiant.

One of my favorite books on leadership is The Art of Possibility; Transforming Professional and Personal Life, by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, originally published in 2000. Leadership is an art of possibility, according to the Zanders, who draw on their experience as teachers, communicators, and as the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra (Ben) and family therapist and consultant on conflict and transformation (Rosamund).

The Zanders are convinced that the conductor/leader is not a dominator but a conduit of possibility. We lead by making others powerful, by never doubting the capacity of the people we lead to fulfilling the dreams that we encourage and that they claim for themselves. The book is full of brilliant insights about how leaders empower others to become their truest and best selves. The following are some of the leadership lessons that the Zanders believe evoke the art of possibility in all of us.

  1. Step into a world of possibility. As leaders, we are called to set before people a vision and then become the possibility ourselves. “Enlarge the box, or create another frame around the data, and problems vanish, while new opportunities appear.”[i] Great leaders create new pathways.
  2. Give everyone an “A.” We lead best by reminding those we lead that they are all “A” students. Giving others an “A” from the beginning is a possibility to live into rather than an expectation to live up to.
  3. We can lead from any chair. We need to communicate that every person has the power to make a difference from whatever chair they occupy in the orchestra/congregation. Every person can lead.
  4. Downward spiral talk excludes possibility. Negativity speaks of scarcity rather than abundance and creates a false picture of how things are going from bad to worse. We are called to inspire others to stretch beyond their known capacities.
  5. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When we lighten up our childish demands and entitlements and peel away our pride, we move away from our calculating self to our central self, which is focused on others. The Zanders call this rule #6 – it’s a rule I have to repeat to myself every morning!
  6. Give way to passion. Performance is not about perfection but passion. It’s about letting everyone’s unique voice sing. Passionate leaders take people beyond where they would normally go.
  7. Light a spark. When our hearts burn with faith and fervor, we light sparks of possibility in the lives of others.
  8. Take responsibility for all that happens in our life. Admitting mistakes keeps our spirits whole and frees us to choose again.
  9. And then there are the shining eyes. Zander asks the question in a brief video,  “Have you ever noticed that the conductor of an orchestra never makes a sound?” The conductor depends for his or her power on the ability to make others powerful. How do we know when we, too, have awakened possibility in others, whether it’s our children, our students, or our colleagues in ministry, whether laity or clergy? By looking into their eyes. If their eyes are shining, they have become a vessel of the Holy Spirit.

As we continue to lead and learn during this time of COVID-19, the possibilities for experimenting, adapting, and imagination are endless! All I know is that everywhere I go, I see shining eyes.

  • Knowing that the orchestra conductor does not make a sound but depends for power on making others powerful, how do you lead? Do you lead by controlling or by becoming a servant leader and empowering others to lead?
  • Do you and the Committee on Lay Leadership in your church encourage people to lead from any chair in the orchestra (congregation)?
  • What might happen if you gave everyone in your church an “A” before they “earned” it? Might this be what we call “grace”?
  • Do you train and encourage others to be conduits of possibility: to identify gifts and equip others for ministry rather than do all the hands-on ministry yourself?
  • Can you quiet the voice in the heart of individuals and congregations that says, “I can’t do this”?
  • Do you minister out of an attitude of scarcity or abundance?

A final story. Last May, Benjamin Zander asked Velléda C. Miragias, the Boston Philharmonic’s Assistant principal cellist, if she would be interested in playing her cello in the driveway of the Zanders’ Boston home. Boston’s Symphony Hall had become completely silent since COVID.

Muragias played an hour of J.S. Bach’s solo Suites. Miraculously, people stopped and the outdoor concerts became a weekly event, with over 200 people sometimes and thousands of comments from live Facebook streams all over the world.

“When asked about his role in the concert series, Zander insists that he did very little. He has just gathered an audience of shining eyes, as he puts it. ‘The aim of all of this is to create shining eyes,’ Zander says. ‘My definition of success is not wealth, fame, or power, but how many shining eyes do I have around me?’”

I am convinced that each pastor and layperson in every church around the world gets an “A”. Congratulations! You and your congregation have so much more potential than you may realize. Go for it! Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The whole world is in your hands. Be the possibility and let your eyes shine!

[i] Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander, The Art of Possibility; Transforming Professional and Personal Life, Penguin Books, 2000, p. 14.