Sunday, November 18, 2012

Practically Perfect In Every Way (11/18/12)

But he said to me,
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
2 Corinthians 12:9

This past week I interviewed  Dr. Brene Brown.   She is a professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work.  She has done her research on topics that no one really wants to talk about, shame and vulnerability.    You can watch a couple of her talks on TED and she has written three books, I Thought It Was Just MeThe Gifts of Imperfection, and Daring Greatly.

The interview was engaging.  She is interesting, honest, and happy.   She connects her work with her life.  In her research on shame and vulnerability she discovered people whom she called wholehearted.   They exhibit courage, compassion, and connection.    They are able to be vulnerable and are able to respond to shame in a healthy way.    Her work is not research for research’s sake, but also encouragement for others to become wholehearted.   She takes this challenge on in her own life.   Our conversation will be aired in a few weeks.

Her books were interesting enough to me that I have used her insights to help design these worship services for this fall during the via negativa or the season of “letting go and letting be.”   The subtitle of her book The Gifts of Imperfection is “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.”

One of her chapters in this book which is the focus for today is, “Cultivating Self-Compassion:  Letting Go of Perfectionism.”   That chapter title is the key to the mystery.   Notice the contrast:  self-compassion vs. perfectionism.    Compassionate or perfect.  You can be one or the other but not both.

Let’s talk about perfectionism for a minute.   We tend to equate perfectionism with competence or with attention to detail or with success or with “having it together.”   The perfectionist is the person whose life is in order, who always says the right thing, does the right thing, whose desk is clean, whose house is in order, a person for whom there is a place for everything  and everything is in its place.   This is the straight A student, the star athlete, the accomplished musician, and so forth.

Show me a perfectionist and I’ll show you a happy, competent and successful person.   Right?

Well, no.   Show me a perfectionist and I’ll show you a nervous breakdown in the making.

According to Brene Brown, perfectionism is not the same as competence.   It is not self-improvement.  It is not striving to be your best.  She writes:
Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth.  Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame….Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.    P. 56
She discovered that we all tend to have some of this tendency.   Perfectionism is a spectrum.  Some tend to be more perfect than others.   When perfectionism rears itself in me, and I am honest about it, it is likely that I am trying to look perfect so that I can avoid blame or judgment or I am trying to defend against a deep-seated feeling of shame or unworthiness.

Ministry is like other professions in that there is an entire industry devoted to selling ministers stuff.  Popular items are books and magazines devoted to helping ministers to be “good ministers” – that is “practically perfect in every way” ministers.    I remember reading several early in my career and thankful that it was early in my career.   The books were truly awful and had I tried to follow them I would surely have burned out within a year or two.

They were about scheduling your day, planning an hour of study and preparation for every minute of sermon delivery.  They talked about the people to visit, the events to attend, the importance of keeping up with Greek and Hebrew, to read widely,  to on and on.  I calculated that If you add up all the stuff you were supposed to do to be “good” it would require 200 hours per week.    You still wouldn’t be good enough.
I am just speaking from my experience and I am sure this is true with your work as well.   There is a whole industry designed to make you “perfect” at it, because perfectionism sells.

Perfectionism is motivated not by a sense of self-improvement but by what we think others will think.   Perfectionism is our armor.   It is our protection against blame, judgment, and shame.      The problem is it doesn’t work.

Perfection is unattainable.    As Brene Brown writes:
Feeling shamed, judged, and blamed (and fear of these feelings) are realities of the human experience.  Perfectionism actually increases the odds that we’ll experience these painful emotions and often leads to self-blame.  “It’s my fault.  I’m feeling this way because ‘I’m not good enough.’”  P. 57

What is this shame that we are protecting?

We need to go back to Adam and Eve.  In the second creation story which is actually the older creation story, Adam is in the garden and The Lord wants to make a helpmate for him.  None of these creatures does the trick until he puts Adam to sleep, removes a rib, and voila!  A lovely.   Adam waxes poetic and they frolic around the garden, naked, says the text, and unashamed.

Then there is the story of the tree and the fruit and the snake and Adam and Eve eat the fruit and have their eyes opened and they see that they are naked.  They are ashamed.   They cover themselves with leaves.  Then they hide.  Then the Lord finds them, scolds them, casts them from the garden but before sending them away into the wild world of human experience he clothes them.    He doesn’t take away their feeling of shame about being human, symbolized by their nakedness, he instead covers them with skins.   It is a touching verse, compassionate actually.
And the Lord God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.  Gen. 3:21

The Adam and Eve story is not about guilt.  It is not about original sin.  It is about shame.  Guilt is about doing something bad, shame is about being bad.    Every healthy person has shame.  The only people who do not have shame are sociopaths.    When someone says, “Have you no shame?”  That is a shaming rhetorical question.  The only person who can answer that by saying “no” is a person who murders others and feels absolutely no remorse.

Shame keeps us from destroying each other.   Shame is a universal human emotion that has evolved for species survival.   Its symbol is nakedness.  Its feeling is unworthiness, embarrassment, a red flushed face, tension in the body, rapid heart beat, you likely know the feeling.    You feel exposed.  You want to hide under a rock.  The response we have when we feel that way can be
  • self-blame, “What an idiot, I am!” or
  • turning that feeling toward rage or cruelty by striking back and attacking, or
  • making a vow: “I’ll never allow myself to be in this position again.  I will be perfect so no one can judge me.”    Thus is born CYA.  Cover Your Assets.   
You remember in the story of Adam and Eve that when they were confronted with the fruiting incident that they blamed each other.    They also clothed themselves with the leaves and hid which is all to say that their response to shame was less than healthy.      Self-blame, rage, hiding, perfectionism, are all less than healthy ways to respond to shame.

The cure or more accurately, the care for shame is seen in this verse where the Lord God before sending them out into the cold world, does something and teaches them something.  He makes garments for them and clothes them.   Shame is part of the existential experience of being human.  He doesn’t cure it, he cares for it and shows them how to care for it, themselves, and each other.   In this touching act of compassion of clothing their nakedness he offers the healthy response to shame.   Compassion is shame resilience.

The task of being human is how to respond to shame.  That is pretty much our assignment.

How do we respond to feeling unworthy, not good enough, not lovable, not OK?    How do we respond when our shame triggers are pulled?   As we learn to develop shame resilience, we clothe ourselves with compassion.  That is a beautiful image from the scriptures.   As the author of Colossians writes:
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.  Col 3:12

That compassion and kindness is for ourselves as well as for others.

When our shame is triggered and it can be triggered by any number of things, what do we do? 

Here is an example.

I wrote my first post on my new blog yesterday.  I sent a link to it to the person who is in the organization that I wrote about.  She wrote back how much she liked it but then told me that I got the name of the organization wrong.   Boom.  Shame hits.  What an idiot.  How could I be so dumb?  Then, in a moment of grace, I decided to let it go.   It isn’t the apocalypse.  It is a mistake.  Fix it.  Be kind to yourself, John Shuck.    Then share the experience and laugh about it.

Shame thrives and grows in the darkness of secret and silence.   Brene Brown writes that people who develop shame resilience and who are wholehearted respond to shame with courage, compassion, and connection.   The cure or more precisely the care for shaming experiences is to talk about them with people who have earned your trust.     That requires the courage to be vulnerable, compassion to yourself, and connection with others.

I want to say that first of all to you as a congregation that you have earned my trust.   You are a congregation that has allowed me to express my own vulnerabilities.  I have been able to be cared for as I express my theological ideas that on occasion may be slightly unorthodox.  That has allowed for great growth for me and has given others permission to grow as well.  I have been able to be creative in worship, to be courageous in my advocacy for equality, and most recently to express my grief with you over the loss of Zach knowing that you won’t judge, blame, or run away.      I thank you for that.

I am no perfect minister.  When I try to be it is a sign that I am trying to compensate for some feeling of unworthiness.   The care for that is not perfection.  The care is compassion.   You have shown that to me.  You have shown me how to be compassionate to myself as well as to others.

The sermon text for today is from the Apostle Paul.   He is the classic perfectionist.   He brags about how great a Pharisee he was.   I followed the law to the letter and so forth.   I think that he was confronted with his own shame, a shame that he couldn’t cover with perfectionism, and found grace.  He writes of his sacred experience, when he felt a holy presence:
But he said to me,
‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’
So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
1 Corinthians 12:9
The word that is translated as weakness, I wonder if it should be vulnerability.  Vulnerability is not weakness.  When we take off the armor and allow ourselves to be present that takes incredible courage and strength.   When we acknowledge at least to one other person, our brokenness, that acknowledgment is our strength.    What I think Paul is writing is that he discovered grace not in his perfectionism, but in his vulnerability, his openness, his humanity, and his brokenness.    It is out of vulnerability that we find our creativity, or as Paul put it, the power of Christ.     In the meantime, clothe yourselves with compassion.  Be kind to yourself.    You are holy and beloved as you are.

Brene Brown found this quote from Leonard  Cohen with which I want to close.  It is a verse from his poem, “Anthem.”  It sums up what I have been trying to say today.
Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Fussing and Living (11/11/12)

Am I now trying to win a popularity contest, or to win God’s approval? If I were still looking for human approval, I would not be the Anointed’s slave. Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectations. I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me. Rather, it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed.
Galatians 1:10-12 Scholars’ Version
The via negativa or the way of letting go is a path of depth.

We have explored silence and darkness as metaphors for the via negativa. Associated with this path are the phrases letting go, letting be, and stripping away. Pruning a tree is another metaphor. The season of autumn with its falling leaves is nature’s own metaphor, so to speak, for the via negativa. It is a path of preparation. Waiting and listening are appropriate postures for the via negativa. So is questioning.

This is not a path that is about suffering or bad things. It is not about being negative. It is true that our life experiences of grief, loss, or an awareness of our own frailty, vulnerability, or mortality are invitations to this spiritual path. Those experiences in and of themselves are not the path. They are gates to the path.

As I try to understand and approach this path myself, I am realizing that it is a path to my authentic self. The motion is not in my experience upward, like climbing a ladder, but a sinking or a falling. Not a sinking or falling into psychological depression, but a sinking and a falling, ultimately, into the depths of God.

This spiritual path is the opposite of grasping and clinging. It is letting go. Letting go of what? Control perhaps. Letting go of the need to be like Mary Poppins, “practically perfect in every way.” Letting go of our perfectionism. Letting go of our need to be seen as successful or bright or beautiful or strong or competent or funny or whatever that ideal is that we have put a lot of effort and time in creating and cultivating. This path may be one in which we let go of images of ourselves that we might have thought represented us. This path shows us that we are deeper than those images.

Maybe it is letting go of those things that we think we “should be” or are “supposed to be” that we have learned from our family, culture, religion, media, or teachers. We may not have even thought we had the option to let go of all of that or any of that. So ingrained were these images of ourselves and what we are “supposed to be” that we didn’t even imagine that the images were not identical with who we are. The via negativa is a marvelous, liberating, and frightening path. It is a journey toward authenticity. It is a path not everyone takes. In fact, there is no requirement that we take it. Like the fox says in the poem from Mary Oliver:
“Why spend so much time trying. You fuss. We live.” 
I am not sure if the via negativa is fussing. Maybe it is. It is reflecting. It is examining. It is taking stock. It is asking the pointed questions and pointing them to oneself. Is this who I am? Is this who I want to be? If one is comfortable with God language, then the question might be,
“Who is God for me now?” 
  It is also letting go of all of those questions and simply embracing who you are. Says the fox:
“You fuss over life with your clever words, mulling and chewing on its meaning, while we just live it.” 
 Touche, Mr. Fox. Touche.

Let’s turn to our reading from the Bible.

The Apostle Paul is angry with the Galatians. He writes this letter without even including the formal niceties.
“Dear Galatians, How are you? I am fine.” 

Instead he launches into them:
“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you!” 
He is angry because in his mind, these folks have added requirements to his liberating message. Instead of "God has made you free," they say " long as you do this and this and that."

I am no expert on Paul. I find him to be puzzling. His time, culture, and context is so foreign to me, I don’t even know how to translate him into contemporary idiom or if it is even possible. There are preachers and theologians who will gladly tell you who he was about and exactly what you need to do about it. My hunch is that you don’t find those preachers and theologians particularly interesting. That is why you are here!

Paul is a puzzler.

I need to say this first. I don’t think Paul is God. That is rather obvious. Who does? I also don’t think that Paul wrote “God’s words.” Paul wrote letters. We have some of them. The church gathered these and eventually called them scripture. I think that was a mistake. I think when we put haloes around these words and ideas we lose the human being. Paul, like all of the writers we find in what we call “the Bible,” are human beings. Mary Oliver’s poetry can be scripture to me as much as Paul’s writings. So are the writings of many others.

Paul, nevertheless, is an interesting human being. I am no expert on him, but I see him as a person who struggled with authenticity. He wanted desperately to get it right. He wanted to get life right, to get God right, to get truth right. I find that admirable.

I also find it a little frightening. It can fuel a zealotry, that psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls a “righteous mind” that can be blind to other points of view. One of the challenges we face in our country is a polarization over politics and religion. It includes what Haidt calls a blinding and a binding. We bind ourselves to our own tribe, whether it be liberal or conservative and we blind ourselves to the truth, value, at times even humanity of the other.

This spiritual path of the via negativa is a letting go of this tribalism. This can be lonely because you anger most the people who were on your own team. If you open yourself to another point of view you betray your own comrades. That tribalism feeds our polarization.

I think Paul is interesting because at some level he was able to let go of his inherited tribalism. I think it cost him. He wrote in Galatians:
Am I now trying to win a popularity contest, or to win God’s approval? If I were still looking for human approval, I would not be the Anointed’s slave. 

Paul had on one hand a desire for authenticity. He saw the cost of that. It would alienate him from his friends. I find that admirable. He is willing to let go of his tribalism, of groupthink, to find his own voice. He wanted to follow the path of Jesus, the Annointed. What I find troubling with Paul is that he heard his own voice as God’s voice. He goes to say:  
Let me make it clear, friends, the message I announced does not conform to human expectations. I say this because it was not transmitted to me by anyone nor did anyone teach it to me. Rather, it came to me as an insight from God about Jesus as God’s Anointed. 
You might say, perhaps Paul’s insight from God really was from God. OK. I am not sure what that means or how I am supposed to treat that insight. Do I believe him? Do I accept it without question? When someone tells me God’s opinion on some matter, I am skeptical. What that sometimes means in my experience is that this person is refusing to take responsibility for his or her own opinions and wants them backed by some higher authority, such as the Bible or ultimately God. It may not always mean that, of course. But if someone claims an insight from God, then lay it out on the table and let’s evaluate it. That, what we call “discernment” or testing the spirits is also part of the path of letting go and letting be, the via negativa.

Is there a way to find our own voice, to go deep into our authentic selves and at the same time not equate our voice with absolute truth of some sort?

Let me try to tie these ends together.

The via negativa, the spiritual path of letting go and letting be, is in part a letting go of all of the “supposed to bes” and the “should bes” that is the need to score high in the “popularity contest” that Paul mentions in order to find our authentic self, our own voice. It is a search for depth. It is as Brene Brown author of The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly writes:
“Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.” 
I could have ended the sermon right there and sent you home in search of your authentic selves. But there was something that nagged me. I worry about confusing my own voice, my authentic self, with absolute truth. While it is admirable to follow one’s own path, to walk that lonesome valley, to let go of our tribalism, to follow the beat of our own drummer, it is also crucial for us to be in community. I want to be authentic but I want to be in relationship with others. I need my voice checked.

When Paul writes that he got his insights from God and no other human, I get a little squeamish. I could be misreading Paul and in other places such as 1 Corinthians Paul is all about community. But here, the oh so human apostle Paul, reminds me that as I search for myself I must yet remember that there is still a whole world out there to which I belong.