Monday, March 28, 2016

The Grace of Mistakes and the Curse of Perfectionism

“The artist who aims at perfection in everything achieves it in nothing.”  
--Eugene Delacroix

Twenty seven years of serving Holy Communion to folks in the pews, and in that whole time not one major mistake or screw up on my part. Until a recent Sunday. And when I finally failed…boy, it was a doozy. 

The story. In my faith tradition, we take bread and grape juice in worship to remember the time Jesus did the same with his disciples. Not complicated. How hard can it be to pass around trays of bread and tiny glass cups filled with juice? That I do this in front of one hundred or more people does raise my angst a bit, makes me nervous. 

After all, I want it to be just perfect. I want me to be perfect.

Three metal trays stacked high on a table, each filled with 40 shot glass sized containers of dark purple juice. I balanced one tray on my hand, but then another tray began to slide off the table so I lunged to catch it. BIG MISTAKE! Grape juice splashed and sloshed EVERYWHERE, a magnificent magenta spray! On the floor. On my robe. Covering the face of one of my Deacons, an ocean of juice now dripping down her cheek.  But then a miracle. We quickly recovered and served. Few seemed to notice.

Me? I blushed, so embarrassed. Angry at myself for fouling up so publicly. Fearful I’d be called out for that oh so clumsy act. Imperfection 1. Me 0. Yet the sky did not collapse. The ritual remained sacred. The world did not end and those gracious Deacons gently joked with me afterwards, trying to get me to just laugh at that liturgical train wreck.

And then I finally remembered…I was human. I am human. Like every one else. Like every last person on earth. We imperfect beings. Mortal souls. Subject to all the laws of human behavior that teach imperfection is at the heart of the human condition. We are all hard wired to fail at some point, to not get it right. To do that which we are not supposed to do, or not do that we are supposed to do.  Just ask Adam and Eve.     

Try as hard as we might to always get it right and to never drop the ball still: we burn the toast and let slip some unkind words in conversation and then we regret it.  We commit to a diet and then secretly sneak Ben and Jerry’s Chunky Monkey late at night.  We cut off a fellow driver in anger and colorfully curse them. We impatiently snap at our kids and forget to let the dog out, who then pees on the kitchen floor.  We get all pumped up for a big presentation at work and then leave all the slides at home.

We are human.

And yet if there is one lesson I’ve learned in almost three decades of listening as folks share with me the deepest longings and fears of their hearts, it is that far too many of us still demand perfection from ourselves. Still imagine and even believe in a God whom we think expects human perfection. Still allow the warped values of this world convince us that we are not good enough, no matter how hard we strive or try. 

The teenage girl convinced she’s not good enough because she is not as thin as the waif like supermodel in the magazine ad. And so she binge eats and then purges.  The overachieving student who is sure he is a failure because his first choice college sent him a rejection letter.  To him his life feels over.  The uber-successful suburbanite surrounded by so many outward signs of “success” but who is still so spiritually empty inside. But it all looks so perfect.    

So here’s one simple hope for all of us as imperfect humans in an imperfect world.  Go ahead and spill the grape juice, and then mop it up and wipe it up and try again.  Be as gentle with yourself as God is with you. Expect to fail and then learn from those lessons.  Ask for the best from your loved ones but when they fall short, and they often will, respond with compassion and good humor, not just judgment.  Seek progress, not perfection in yourself and others.  As one prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous says: “Dear God. You are God. I am not.  Thank God. Amen.”  Perfection is for God alone.   Imperfection is the lot of humanity.  And that’s ok.

So if you ever come to my church on a Sunday when we serve communion, my advice is to wear a raincoat.  Just in case.  After all, no one’s perfect. Right?






Monday, March 14, 2016

The Shadow Side of Human Behavior: the Dark Knight In All of Us

“I guess we’re all two people. One daylight and the one we keep in shadow.”
--Bruce Wayne/Batman, “Batman Forever”

He was my football coach in the eighth grade. Let’s call him “Lenny”.  Even more than four decades later, I worry he’ll somehow read this essay, make me “DROP!!” for twenty push ups, and then scream in my ear the whole time. You see, I was afraid of that coach most of the time. Lenny often brought out the worst in me and my young teammates. He used fear and rage to motivate us.

Lenny was old school, a snarling, volatile, aggressive coach. Anger was his go to emotion and he used it very well. We were absolutely terrified of him and his violent temper. Miss a block or tackle and he’d get right up in your face, sometimes yelling so hard we could feel the mist of his spit as he chewed us out. Most of us had felt the sharp tip of his cleat at least once, when he kicked us in the backside.

One Saturday morning my Mom made the mistake of arriving before the end of practice. Forty two years later she still remembers how Lenny berated us with screaming “F” bombs, as we ran the field. She’d never heard an adult actually talk to kids that way. Yes we did win the title game and yes, like Lenny, we too were often mean and ill-tempered, cocky and pushy. By bullying us, Lenny brought out the worst in us.

Our shadow side.

The “shadow”: the part of ourselves, all human beings, that is the darker side of human nature.  Anger. Violence.  Bias and “-isms”. Sarcasm.  Mean spiritedness.  Revenge. The part that tempts us to flip off a driver who cuts us off or to yell at full volume when our child pushes our buttons.  The part that fantasizes about what we’d really like to do to our bully of a boss, or the nosy neighbor next door. 

We may protest, “I’d never do that!”; or deny having a shadow side, but the truth?  The shadow is hard wired into us. We wouldn’t be fully human without it: yin to yang, bad to good, better angels versus hidden devils. In my faith tradition we call it “sin” and the temptation to sin.  In Freudian psychology it’s named the “id”: the instinctual part of personality, “fight or flight”.  Most of the time we’re good at keeping the shadow at bay. We put boundaries around it. We develop and practice moral and ethical systems to keep it in check.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

The shadow.  But when it gets out, slips out, comes out?  It’s ugly. 

I’ve been pondering the “shadow”…as I watch our culture sometimes give in to the worst of our personal and collective shadows.  Like the presidential candidate who snarls and growls and bellows “Get ‘em out!” at protesters, eliciting from his followers white hot rage, even bloodshed. Like high school students at a recent Boston area basketball game, who chanted at fans from a school with a significant Jewish population: “You killed Jesus!”  Like social media, the shadow writ large.  Spend five minutes on Facebook and you can see the absolute worst of human impulses, a high tech version of the mob.  Like a coach, who may have lots of championships, but who also uses the worst of human behavior to get the trophy. Is it really worth the price?

The shadow.  Powerful? Yes. Inevitable? No.

Not when we face the truth of our own shadow sides.  Admit we do have a shadow: name it, work to overcome it and tame it. A vigorous faith helps.  The best faith traditions always include confession: personal and communal rituals that encourage us to own our sins, seek forgiveness, and begin again.  Humility is important: a clear eyed view of one’s self, warts and all. Conscience too, the faithful voice within that warns: “You really do not want to say that or to do that, do you?”

Some people lean upon a community of like minded folks, a 12 step recovery meeting where we take a moral inventory and then make amends on the road to sobriety.  Folks who really love us will also tell us when we are our best selves and when we are our worst selves too.  A shadow always thrives in the shadows.  Take it out into the sunlight and it will fade away.

So too as a culture we need to take a long hard look at the people we lionize and follow as teachers, icons, heroes, artists and role models. The folks who coach our kids and preach from the pulpit, the people we trust to keep us safe and to guide our nation: do they bring out the best in us?  Do they inspire us? Do we want to be just like them?  Do they call us to be good and kind and generous and just, to live with integrity? Do they remind us that we are better than we might think we are, at any given moment?

Or, by their words and actions, do our leaders instead appeal to our base selves, evoke from the crowd rage, self-righteousness, hypocrisy, and violence? Do the musicians we listen to or the games we play or the sports we watch as fans: do these celebrate and highlight human goodness or revel in human badness?

The shadow. 

It does live within all of us, of that I am absolutely sure.  It is in me. In you. In every one. What do we do with it? How do we respond to it?  As individuals and in community: that choice is up to us.




Monday, March 7, 2016

Is It Just Me or Is America Going Crazy?

"Toto? I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”  --Dorothy, “The Wizard of Oz”

Is it just me or do things right now in our country feel a bit…crazy. Crazy. As in weird, strange, odd, disquieting, abnormal.  Like we’re all just riding on the crazy train and there’s no way to get off.  Or like Alice, we’ve collectively slipped down a rabbit’s hole into a wacky alternative universe, and we wonder what is “normal” anymore.


This fear came to me as I ran on the treadmill at my local gym last week.  The good news is that as a Lenten commitment, I’ve finally gotten up off the couch. The bad news is that the fitness machines are parked directly in front of 17 big screen TVs, hanging from the ceiling, lined up end to end, in the cavernous workout room. Regardless of where I am or what I’m doing I can’t avoid this visual assault and since I’m on a treadmill, no matter how fast I run, I still can’t escape.  

First there are the channels that feature reality TV shows, like “America's Most Smartest Model”, “I Married a Stranger”, “Amish in the City” and “My Big Fat Obnoxious FiancĂ©”. These are real shows. Do people actually watch this stuff? Yes. Reality TV now makes up more than half of all television programming. Forget using illegal interrogation techniques to break a terrorist. Just park ‘em in front of “Duck Dynasty” for five minutes. 

And by some cruel cosmic joke, my favorite machine is four feet from “Naked and Afraid”.  A man and woman, who’ve never met, are dropped into a remote location (a rain forest or deserted island) and stripped of all their clothing and possessions, then forced to survive for 21 days.  Thank goodness the show digitally masks certain body parts.  Watching the show is like witnessing a car accident. I know I shouldn’t look, but I just can’t help myself. 


Then there’s the news channels: CNN, MSNBC and Fox which feature talking heads bashing each other, in a gleeful orgy of partisanship, and of course it is all about the election. THE ELECTION.  The one that began last March and will be with us for another eight months. The election is like that obnoxious guest you invite to your party who opens his mouth and sucks all the oxygen out of the room.  The one who doesn’t take the hint to leave when it’s well past midnight and you’re loading the dishwasher and all he wants to do is have another beer and tell another self-centered story.

Consider this. In my Sunday newspaper there were 52 election related articles, about a quarter of the total paper.  We can’t avoid it. The election dominates Facebook, everyone weighing in with an opinion: pro, con, crazy.  The election has hijacked our cultural conversation. It’s everywhere. Since you can only say so much about Presidential politics, a lot of what is being said is a cotton candy confection of uninformed ideas.  We aren’t even talking to each other about the election.  It’s now just at each other. 


Even when I leave the gym, craziness follows. I walk outside into the middle of what’s supposed to be a New England winter and instead experience what feels like a spring San Diego day. This week the mercury will hit 70 degrees, a temperature we’re not supposed to feel until May, right? The Iditarod dogsled race in Alaska had to truck in snow this year to stage the event. The winter of 2015/16 is the second warmest on record; the first being 2001/02 and the third warmest, 2011/12.  That’s no aberration.  That’s real climate change. That’s real scary.      

As environmental activist Bill McKibben recently wrote in the “Boston Globe”, “[This week] Across the northern hemisphere, the temperature, if only for a few hours, apparently crossed a line: it was more than two degrees Celsius above ‘normal’ for the first time in recorded history and likely for the first time in the course of human civilization.”   Makes me want to run back inside and fire up another episode of “Naked and Afraid”.  Or maybe “Naked and Afraid” is what we might call life in these United States at this time, when everything seems to be a bit….


I’m not quite sure what the cure is for our communal wackiness.  Maybe we just need to spend more time with each other, face to face, in the real world, far away from sterile gyms and ubiquitous screens and virtual reality, which really is not very real.  Maybe God is pushing us to take seriously all the challenges of Creation; that to live at our best means we are to live in true community, actual community, and then work together to make a difference for the good, for all people. Every person.  Even the folks who watch “Naked and Afraid” like me.

I know these hopes and dreams may sound kind of…crazy, but in 2016, I’m ready for some sanity. How about you?