I wake up early Sunday morning a week ago, ready to preach, having arrived at Lakeside (Ohio) Chautauqua the afternoon before. I go out for a run and take a shower. Then chaos ensues. My brush isn’t in my purse, where it always is. I’ll make do, I say to myself. I put on my suit, only to discover that the skirt is 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 realize there is no hair dryer in the cottage where I am staying. Oh well, nothing I can do. 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 eat breakfast, deciding whether to laugh or cry, I notice an envelope in my briefcase labeled “Wabi-sabi Project.” It’s been there for a year, but I’d forgotten about it.
I open the envelope and there are four small sea shells glued to the top of a match box, each shell slightly imperfect. I laugh out loud, realizing that the friends who unknowingly put the envelope in my briefcase for such a time as this were saying to me gently but firmly, “Laurie, you are God’s wabi-sabi project. Forget about perfection. You are released. You’ll never look perfect anyway. Just get on with worship.” So 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, cracked, scarred, messy. 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.
As I have confessed in my book Recess; Rediscovering Play and Purpose, 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 forced 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 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. The result: failure around every corner. Susanna’s name slipped my mind, and she wasn’t happy. 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 couldn’t make it to a child’s Honor Society induction. I had what I thought was a grace-filled, come-to-Jesus- meeting with a staff member, and he was mad. I rushed to an evening meeting in mismatched shoes.
Over the years, wabi-sabi has taught me to recognize the counterintuitive and imperfect beauty of my life and of all creation: the half-burned candle, mismatched 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.
Can perfection actually be harmful, then? Can our insistence on doing everything “just right” get in the way of enjoying our life with God? I realize 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 burnout.
One afternoon last week Gary and I took a ferry to Kelly’s Island in Lake Erie and rented bikes. We rode around the entire island to see the world-famous glacial contours and enjoy the day. During our ride, a strong thunderstorm forced us to find refuge in a small gift shop/snack bar. Sitting on old chairs on a covered porch for a half hour, we savored the downpour. I was released. We continued riding along the waters of Lake Erie, spotting wildlife and reveling in the beauty of the land. It was an afternoon to forget about saving the world and become one with God’s beautiful creation.
On the ferry back to the mainland, with the wind of the Spirit dancing around me, all I could pray was, “Thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jesus; thank you, Jesus.” I was simply being. Gary looked at me and said, “This morning you saved the world by preaching. This afternoon you savored the world by playing.” I was released.
I still like Matthew’s words in 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” After all, the word “perfect” is derived from a Latin word meaning “complete,” “entire,” or “full grown.” I prefer to define “perfect” as “completely aligned with God’s grace and mercy,” which implies a healthy synergy between saving and savoring the world.
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 as wabi-sabi: a prerequisite to deep, mature spiritual growth.
Make no mistake. I am probably never going to awake in the morning deciding to be mediocre. But I’d rather be authentic and whole rather than perfect. On Labor Day Sunday last year, I led the congregation in the wrong prayer after communion because I hadn’t turned the page in my bulletin. Seeing their confusion, I laughed and thanked the congregation for their grace. After the service, many people came up to me and said, “It was fun to see that you are human and not always perfect.” And I was released. Wabi-sabi.
You, too, are released to align with God’s grace and mercy, to save and to savor…even if it makes it hard to plan the day.