I have a confession to make: I didn’t get it all done.
This sabbatical I’m about to embark on has been in the planning for about a couple of years, and since last Fall I’ve been earnestly making lists of things that needed to be accomplished before I left, both personal and professional. Updates that I wanted to conclude, tasks to work through, projects to complete. I had fitness goals to achieve, cluttered spaces to be organized, and home improvement undertakings to finish. Of course there were the regular aspects of my job, the joy of meeting some of you to grab a cup of coffee over at Red Barn. The pastoral concerns that have emerged in the past couple of months, communicating the exciting things happening here at St. Mark’s, searching for a youth director. Add to that the personal things: sports and music activities for the kids, supporting Melissa in her doctoral program, dinners to cook.
The picture I had in my mind grew to fantastical levels: I would be the male equivalent of the Proverbs 31 woman. Going to bed late at night, and rising before the sun, I would do more things than humanly possible all before I set out on this adventure of a lifetime. (And a friendly reminder, that the woman described in Proverbs 31 is actually Wisdom personified, but I digress.) The image I held up for myself was utter perfection.
Which I guess is about par for the course for the adult child of an alcoholic. Given the unpredictability and instability of my early childhood home, I still sometimes think that perhaps perfection lies just around the corner. And so I tried unrealistically to put check marks next to all those items on my to do list. To cover all the bases. But I didn’t get it all done.
[callout]A sermon based on Acts 17:22-31.[/callout]
Paul made his way around the city of Athens known for its religious fervor and saw idols and altars dedicated to a plethora of deities. After his explorations, he began sharing the good news about Jesus to any who would listen, and soon the people brought him to the Areopagus, a hill which held government buildings and a grand gathering place. “May we know this new teaching you are proclaiming?” they asked.
As we heard this morning, Paul tells them that he has seen how deeply religious they are, including their making an altar to the “unknown god.” Paul wants to expand their knowledge and declares, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” He continues by telling them how God had become accessible to the world and how humans of all stripes searched blindly for God. But now the time had come when God revealed the fullness of God’s self through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and that a faithful response would be to live changed lives marked by repentance. God wanted to break into their lives.
It seems to me that the Athenians are perfectionists too. They wanted to get it all right; they wanted every box to have a checkmark in it. Why else would they make an altar to the unknown god? They’re hedging their bets. After they had brought their sacrifices and offerings to the deities they knew they had offended in order to make amends, they made one last stop before heading home. They placed one last oblation—one final act of contrition—to make sure it all got done. They wanted it to be perfect.
In response, poet, artist and singer Leonard Cohen exhorts in his song “Anthem” “Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack, in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Cohen likely found inspiration from the Muslim poet Rumi, who wrote some 1700 years ago, “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” The ruptures in our lives let the radiance in.
The beauty and importance of imperfection wends its way throughout life, often turning up in unexpected places. While traveling in the Southwest, I learned that some of the Native American tribes there—the Navajo, Pueblo and Hopi—would intentionally create an imperfection in their handiwork. They would leave a pattern incomplete on the weaving of a blanket, use the wrong color bead in a piece of jewelry, deliberately place a flaw in pottery. They believed this exhibited the truth that only the Holy One could create something perfect.
Disney Pixar showed us this in Cars 2. Tow Mater—that joyful yet simple-minded rusted tow truck—unknowingly stumbles into a British spy ring and gets mistaken for an MI-6 agent. While going deep undercover with Holly Shiftwell—a sporty and legitimate British agent—Mater gets to try on different disguises. However, the cover ups don’t work quite right due to Mater’s many dents on his exterior. Holly suggest that they should bump the imperfections out. Mater replies, “No thank you. I don’t get them dents buffed, pulled, filled or painted by nobody. They’re way too valuable.” “Your dents are valuable?” Holly asks incredulously. “Really?” “I come by each one of ’em with my best friend Lightning McQueen. I don’t fix these. I wanna remember these dents forever.”
My favorite mystery author Louise Penny explores this theme extensively in her Three Pines series about Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Quebec Sureté, and especially in the ninth book of the series. Gamache’s life and career seem to be shattering throughout the midst of the novel: his boss—and former best friend— has reassigned Gamache’s best officers and given him the seeming dregs of the police academy and seems bent on destroying Gamache’s career. Armand’s second-in-command has bitterly deserted him. The Chief Inspector still lives under the shadow of a tragic event that happened a few years before, that has taken a toll both physically and emotionally. He’s vulnerable. And yet he never stops teaching the new recruits working with him the four phrases he lives and works by: I was wrong; I’m sorry; I don’t know; I need help. He never forgets that power and the pursuit of perfection are not the path to a meaningful life. The title of the mystery I’m describing is lifted directly from Leonard Cohen: it’s called simply How the Light Gets In.
A couple of weeks ago I was out on a training hike at Mt. Monadnock, heading up the Pumpelly Trail — a nearly 9 mile out and back path on the far side of the mountain. About two and a half miles in on that hike as I was descending from a boulder, the grip off my boots slipped and I wedged my left foot between two rocks, forcing it to hyperextend. I jumped up pulling my foot out, and then stopped to take off my boot and see if there was any swelling. Nothing changed physically and the pain was bearable, so I pressed on, albeit more slowly. It was not easy. And even walking gingerly and intentionally, every so often a shooting pain would burst up my leg.
A week after this event I was describing it to my colleague group, and then I said half-mockingly, “I need to realize of course that I’m exploring wilderness spirituality on my sabbatical.” The friend sitting next to me without missing a beat said, “Yeah, you’re not staying at the Hilton.” It doesn’t take a theologian to realize she’s right. I’ll be sleeping in a tent and hiking in the rain this summer. There’ll be mosquitoes and black flies and gnats. (Oh my!) I’ll be drinking in the wisdom the desert mothers and fathers learned by leaving everything behind in order to live simply in the wilderness away from society. Imperfections will abound. The trail will get rough. I don’t know when—although I’ve got a good guess that the summit day heading up to Mt. Kilimanjaro will likely be in the mix—I just know that it will happen.
Richard Rohr writes, “We grow spiritually much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.” Belden Lane, author of the book guiding my sabbatical Backpacking with the Saints, adds, “The only way to make progress is by making mistakes… over and over again. The seemingly perfect [person] isn’t perfect at all. [They’re] just better than others at hiding [their] shadow.”
“Forget your perfect offering / There is a crack, a crack, in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” “The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
I’ve learned along the way that God is most prevalently found in the wilderness experiences of our lives. The times when we feel most vulnerable. When our lives crack under the pressure of all that swirls around us or due to the stress we place on ourselves. Oh, we like to live thinking all of the bases are covered. We make those perfect offerings to the unknown gods of our lives, but that’s not what the God of creation desires. “God does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.” God simply desires to break in, to shine light through the cracks of our lives. God utterly longs to bring us redemption.
As I commence on this four month time of renewal, rest and reflection, know that you will remain in my prayers. Allow yourselves to be less than perfect but not using that imperfection either to belittle yourself or to force you to the sidelines. Engage in the life Christ offers to you, make amends and share the good news. Rather than thinking this is a time to disconnect from this community, dig in and partake in everything happening here. Explore the wildernesses of your life. Find renewal. Trust in God’s deep and abiding love And please pray for me. Pray that as I seek God and deeper knowledge of God, I may both find and be found by God.
And now, my sisters and brothers, may we all experience the light of the risen Christ who breaks into our lives, showing us that without death there could be no resurrection. May we know that it is through our wounds that the healing grace of God enters in. And may we trust that even when we enter into the wilderness places of our lives, the God of all creation will meet us there, for God is never far from any of us. We know all of this because of him who died and rose again.
Alleluia! Christ is risen!