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.

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