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