This sermon was preached at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Huntington on 2/19/17 and looks at the unsatisfying quest for perfection.
Some years ago, I maintained a regular practice of Zen Meditation, led by a Korean Buddhist Zen Nun. The 6am practice reminded me, in crystal clear detail, that I still wasn’t a morning person. We often think of meditation as a quiet discipline, a solitary discipline or at least a slow-moving spiritual practice. As true as that is most of the time, it wasn’t true on Thursday mornings. The elderly Buddhist sister would lead us, in what she called “bowing meditation,” in English. It’s sort of the spiritual equivalent of doing lunges at the Gym with your trainer.
108 full body prostrations – You go from standing up straight to having your forehead touch the ground in front of you, and back again to standing up and straight, in under maybe about 6 seconds. The spiritually enlightened 30 year-old I was at the time, I wanted to do it “right.” I’m not entirely sure why, but for me at the time, “right” meant not using my hands to get down or to get back up. I kept them in the prayer pose and relied on my legs and core to get down and get back up again. (I don’t know why I didn’t think to bring wrist weights and make it a full-on gym routine….)
Needless to say, by noon on bowing-meditation day, not only was I my least-chipper self for forcing myself to pretend I was a morning person, but I also couldn’t safely manage stairs without grimacing from the pain in my upper legs. But at least I did the meditation…right. Another side effect was that as people passed me throughout the day, conversations invariably gravitated toward talking about why I was in so much pain. I’d just have to go into all the details of what happened, and why, and how it was still affecting me hours (and sometimes days) later… spirituality done “right.”
How often do we get so worked up about being perfect, that we miss the point of what we’re doing? Maybe it takes us so far afield from our purpose that it actually has the opposite effect we intended. Meditation is not about bringing attention to our selves, or our egos; meditation is not about making the story about me. The quest for the perfect is full of many disappointments, and in some ways, it makes things so much harder – it can break our hearts.
I’m reminded of the words of Annie Dillard, “I am a frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world, and I am getting along. I am aging and eaten and have done my share of eating too. I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits, but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for, whose gnawed trees breathe a delicate air, whose bloodied and scarred creatures are my dearest companions, and whose beauty bats and shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them.” Can we allow our spirits to honor the beauty that shines not in its imperfections but overwhelmingly in spite of them? Can we strive a little less for perfect, and be a little more present to our dearest companions in this frayed and living world?
I’ve begun to say more and more often that ministry is a team sport. A few weeks ago in response to the refugee and immigrant crisis, a whole team of Fellowshippers helped to organize our response to the executive order that turned out to be illegal, while other leaders moved forward in learning more about the Sanctuary movement that is expanding in our nation, and I’m having conversations with our Interfaith clergy group over what collaborations we can persue . Meanwhile, we continue to be the cold weather shelter for migrant men who have limited housing options on Long Island. The current tension between striving for a more equitable respect for immigrants and refugees with the very real-world concern about the flurry of ICE raids on immigrant communities – across the country but also right here in Brooklyn, Queens and our own Long Island, makes us sometimes move at what might feel to some like a glacial pace, as we hold in our hearts the risks associated with our shelter guests. How do we act while making sure we honor the well-being of the people we are already helping? Our shelter partners with 14 other houses of worship, and a non-political social service agency – we have to carefully think through all our steps to hold all this in tension. ….AND we just heard on Saturday of 8 Sudanese refugees who fled the US seeking refuge in Canada across our northern border. We are now a nation where innocent people flee from the US, seeking refuge amongst our allies. All of our responses, our management, our logistics, takes dozens of Fellowshippers to make happen in our corner of the world. Not always seen by all, nonetheless the broader ministry of our congregation continues on.
At the same time, some members of our pastoral care team, and our social justice team, and myself are taking turns attending workshops and meetings of LI-CAN, a Long Island congregationally-based community organizing group that’s looking at our local opioid epidemic, gun safety issues, as well as how immigrants are perceived here on Long Island. And in my last sermon I also mentioned the on-going collaborations several of our leaders are supporting with local farm workers, with the pressing needs for Transgender folk, and even the leadership some of our members give toward the broader work of the Family Resources League which helps people in crisis in our community.
Nothing is all encompassing, nothing is perfect, but our congregation is connected and doing excellent ministry. I could stand here for ten more minutes just listing the ways that our community is involved in direct service, social justice, charity or solidarity work – locally, state-wide and yes, even globally. As one non-UU friend of mine recently said to me, UU’s punch above our weight (to use a sports metaphor.) But I could also spend the next ten minutes sharing the ways in which we are falling short; there are times where that’s helpful, and there’s times when that’s just spiritually exhausting. If we take a step back – we see a world where a million things are falling apart at once. Of course, we’re not doing enough. No one institution could ever do enough to fix all this. We just need to strive to do the things we do, well. What we choose to focus in on – always and only the good, or always and only the negative – is telling, and sometimes self-fulfilling – and too often self-defeating. Who we choose to say we are, impacts our sense of identity, and ultimately what we can accomplish and who we become.
If ministry is a team sport, there’s a way in which spirituality is a communal endeavor. Our seventh principle reminds us that we covenant to affirm and promote the interdependent web of life of which we are all a part. We often talk about that principle in terms of the environment, but it also reflects the religious truth that we are all connected. Our humanity is found in the sum of all of us. That practice of bowing meditation I spoke of earlier, was a communal practice. Over time, there’s a palpable sense that we feel in meditation that occurs in communal presence that’s different than solo practice. Much like how when we gather for justice work, our shared voices magnify the impact, when we gather in silent meditation, the silence takes on a deeper aspect.
And as frustrating as it may be to individually seek perfection, communal expectations can only be magnified. As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. When we project onto our congregation the need to be perfect in all ways – for things to be just right – we make it harder to do the things we are here to do. We strain, and ache, and demoralize. Then like the bowing meditation enthusiast who seeks to turn it into a gym routine, we walk through our days and years focusing on how our communal shortcomings only point toward how “me, myself and I” have been wronged or disappointed. The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our egos, despite our best intentions. Religion calls us back from that unsatisfying habit.
We learned about this as kids. Remember the story of Goldilocks? She goes out into the forest and breaks into some stranger’s home. She then eats their food, criticizing that some of the porridge is too hot, some is too cold, and then after finding the porridge that suits her tastes, she eats it. Goldilocks repeats this with the furniture; finally breaking someone’s chair in the process. Then she goes onto judge the beds too firm, too soft, and finally “just right.” When her neighbors finally get home, they walk through their own home, the scene of the break-in, until they find the culprit still sleeping in their kid’s bed. (Why do we tell this story to children?!) It ends with, “Just then, Goldilocks woke up and saw the three bears. She screamed, “Help!” And she jumped up and ran out of the room. Goldilocks ran down the stairs, opened the door, and ran away into the forest. And she never returned to the home of the three bears.”
The senseless quest for perfection returns us to feeding our individual egos, despite our best intentions – even in community. When we perpetually strive for “just right”, when we chase “perfect” into the woods, we sometimes break things, and break into places, along the way. In congregational life, it’s the sort of “stay in your lane” push and pull of committee work. We all have issues and concerns we feel deeply, and may also be worthy and valuable and needed, and we can’t prioritize everything to be #1. Sometimes in community, we can get into disagreements or even arguments over, equally worthy matters. Doing something well, but not “just right,” becomes cause for a sense of failure. Sometimes, we’re trying to determine if someone else’s porridge is too hot or too cold for me, and sometimes we break their furniture in the process. When we get lost in judging the people around us, far too often it ends with one of us running away into the woods screaming “Help!” for what might be something that was caused by our own bad behavior. We miss the point of the spiritual communal dream – not to judge each individual action, but to see the broader picture and build the beloved community piece-by-piece, mistake-by-mistake, hope-by-hope. It’s like the Buddhist Sand Mandalas we heard about in our Wondering this morning. The goal isn’t to hold onto a perfect bit of art, but to come together to create something that wasn’t there before, knowing full well that all things change.
I say all this, because I don’t want to see our committed leaders – all also volunteers – burn out. And if you help in any of the thousand things our Fellowship does to help our corner of the world, then I’m speaking to you right now about burn-out. And if you’re about to start helping in the thousand things, remember this as you begin your life-saving work. There is so much the world needs of us, and we can not do it all. We have to pick and choose. But even if we could do it all – if we had super-human powers for social justice – we would still not all agree on the right way to do every one of the thousand things – even the things we each 100% agree needed to be done. Some would find their porridge to be too hot, or too cold; some would ask why did we go through those particular woods to access the porridge, while others would wonder why we’re eating someone else’s porridge in the first place. We’re a community of roughly 250 adults and roughly 75 children and youth. When was the last time everyone agreed on something at your own dinner table, let alone the last family reunion? But we can project onto our much larger community unrealistic expectations of walking lock step with one another, and that only leads to disappointment – and heartbreak.
As we prod at the ceaseless, insufferable and ultimately unsatisfying quest for idealism in community, we create spiritual roadblocks for our shared endeavors. As we come to the close of our service, let us recall the words that we began with this morning from the Sufi poet, Rumi, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built.” He was speaking of love, but the message is as true when we seek perfection. Spiritual community asks us to find all the barriers within yourself that you have built. When we’re more focused on the barriers others have built, or when we find ourselves judging those around us without owning our own parts, religious community calls us back. As Annie Dillard said, “I am frayed and nibbled… I am not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world in which everything fits… but instead am wandering awed about on a splintered wreck I’ve come to care for…”.