by Rev. Dan Schatz
Unitarian Congregation of West Chester
February 24, 2019
“I don’t have any gifts,” the young man said. It was a conversation about gifts, the ones each of us bring to the world. He said, “I don’t have anything for this topic. I’m not really good at anything.” It broke all of our hearts, because we could hear, underneath “I’m not really good at anything,” the unspoken “I’m not really good for anything.” The room was quiet for a moment.
Then one of our group spoke up. She said, “I dothink you have gifts, because this is what you’ve given to me,” and she talked for several minutes, listing the gifts, not just that she saw in him, but that she had experienced personally from him. When she was finished there was a pause. Then someone else from across the room said, “This is what you’ve given to me,” and he described other gifts. Everyone there listed the gifts this young man had given them, over the course of the weeks we had all been together, and in the telling, gave him back to himself.
It was one of the most powerful experiences of love in a community I’ve ever known, and it was also the most normal thing in the world. This is a kind of feeling and need that happens all the time, but too often the words are left unspoken.
Each of us has insecurities, vulnerabilities, doubts about our abilities or even our personhood that we carry with us much of the time. Sometimes those insecurities come out and sometimes we keep them well hidden, but we rarely give ourselves the chance to speak them aloud. The gift that young man gave to me, aside from all the ones we listed in that conversation, was his willingness to be vulnerable in his insecurity. The gift of the group was to open a window for him to see in himself what others could and he could not.
“If I had a spell of magic,” wrote David Wilcox,
“I would make this enchantment for you
A burgundy heart-shaped medallion
With a window that you could look through
So that when all the mirrors are angry
With your faults and all you must do
You could peek through that heart-shaped medallion
And see you from my point of view.”
To be human is to be imperfect, and to experience insecurity about our imperfections. Nobody is exempt – even those who might be tempted to think they are. I remember hearing the Dalai Lama speak once about his personal difficulties, and his struggles in the Way. He didn’t sound like a great hero, a Nobel laureate, the embodiment of highest spiritual enlightenment. He sounded like an ordinary monk, because underneath it all, that’s what he understood himself to be. His depth came in part from his recognition of his ordinariness.
That was when I started to realize that the people I’d always looked up to – heroes, mentors, teachers, family members – were and are just as flawed and anxious as everybody else. That simple truth doesn’t make them any less wonderful or important; it simply makes them human.
Within us all there is a being who is at once fragile and strong, vulnerable and growing. Whatever we look like to the world outside, within us we never stop being that vulnerable and needy human being, and neither does anyone else. That doesn’t prevent us from doing good or being good; it only stops us from being perfect, and to be perfect is to be less than complete.
The same thing goes for the people who we don’t look up to so much as complain about, who act out of malice, or who we identify as villains. I always wonder what brokenness in their pasts led them to act in the way that they do. I wonder how they came to be so wounded, and I’m grateful for those thoughts, because the wondering helps me find my compassion again. That doesn’t mean that I excuse or acquiesce to their actions; I struggle mightily against them. It simply means that I try to preserve my own heart and spirit’s integrity while doing so.
An education expert once said that when you think you know everything, you get a Bachelors degree. When you realize you don’t know anything you get a Masters. And when you finally come to understand that you don’t know anything and neither does anyone else, they give you a PhD.
Our inner lives are much the same, even if we don’t have certificates to show for it. It is far too easy to hold ourselves to the standards of others, who themselves probably don’t live up to those standards all or any of the time. It is too easy to forget that the Unitarian Universalist respect for the inherent worth and dignity of all people includes ourselves. It is too easy, sometimes, to forget that we deserve the dignity of being full and flawed human beings.
I almost forgot it this week. For several days I’d just been feeling off-kilter. I was out of sorts; short-tempered, smart-alecky, jumpy, quick to assume the worst. It wasn’t that I wasn’t myself. In some ways, I was too much myself. The filters weren’t working quite properly. I feel like I get annoying when that happens. I didn’t like the way I was putting myself into the world very much, and I worried that people around me could tell. Very probably a few could.
It happens, and I’m fine. This is part of the reality of being in the world, I think. We don’t have everything together all of the time. I’ve learned that when this kind of thing happens to me, the best I can do is stop, step back, and look within. Is there some need not getting met? Am I afraid of something, or feeling overwhelmed, or just burned out? What within myself do I need to address in order to be more whole and at greater peace?
This was a lesson that came hard learned for me many years ago, during a time when I had just moved to a new city, for a new phase of my ministerial preparation. It was intense, stressful work, and I was under a microscope from my supervisors and my peers. It seemed like every bad habit I had found its way to the surface – not for the first time, of course, but for the first time, I was in an environment in which each flaw would be pointed out and carefully examined. It was not a fun process.
I knew I had some work to do. I was also lonely and anxious and I needed some community. So I started getting involved with the local Unitarian Universalist congregation. I’d been attending services, but it wasn’t enough. I joined the young adult group, and went to vespers services on Wednesday nights, and I started to make some friends, and it didn’t take long before my supervisors and peers commented that I seemed more at ease, more peaceful, less brittle. Some even remarked on my personal and pastoral growth.
I didn’t know at the beginning of it all that my unmet needs were at the root of so much; all I knew was that I didn’t feel right. The grace of that time in my life was being able to come into a community that accepted me as I was and welcomed me, and that in the welcoming, allowed those other parts of myself, the ones I wanted to shine through, to come forward. I didn’t know at the beginning of it all that I was anxious, until I came to a life-giving community in which it was safe to be so, and in which I could just be myself – flaws and fears and all. I will always be grateful for that lesson, and for communities like that one and like this one that make such lessons possible.
It was a friend from that congregation who pointed me towards an interview with a Catholic priest she’d found in Parade Magazine,of all places. Normally I wasn’t in the habit of looking in Paradefor deep theology, but she’d gone to the trouble of clipping the article, so I felt I owed her at least a glance through. There was nothing earth shattering, until I came to the last paragraph. The priest’s name was Lorenzo Albacete, and he said, “The language of the inner life is not the language of experts, nor of eloquent dramatists, not of a mature and healthy self-acceptance. The language of the inner life is a serene silence, a deep hurt, a boundless desire and occasionally, a little laughter.”
That was twenty years ago, and I still keep those two sentences taped to the front of my computer monitor at home. It’s always there when I write, when I respond to email, when I try to come up with something to say on a Sunday morning. It was there this week when I felt off-center. “A serene silence, a deep hurt, a boundless desire and occasionally, a little laughter.”
Within us each there is a soul that looks out upon the world. There’s nothing mystical about this; it’s simply who we are. Within us each there is deep love, and there is deep longing, there is deep sadness, and there is deep hope. There is deep wonder, and there is deep joy.
Sometimes, when we’re hurting or longing, we know why. Maybe we have not been accepted and loved for who we are. Maybe we’ve been put down, or told through words or through actions that we are not good enough. Maybe we’ve been told that we have the wrong sexual orientation or race, or that we’re the wrong gender or gender identity, or that we have the wrong kind of education or come from the wrong kind of family or the wrong kind of faith. Or maybe we’ve been told we’re not social in the right way, or we’re just weird, or we don’t always have the right words for things.
Or maybe its something else. Maybe we’ve been through a loss, or face the uncertainty of an illness with a course that is not clear. Maybe we’re unhappy in a relationship. Maybe we’re confused. Maybe we’ve just grown too distant from whatever we identify as our source of peace. Maybe it’s as simple as the angst we rightly feel when we look at the state of the world and the country, and it’s all so frightening, and it’s all piled on top of the day to day, ordinary trials that sap our energy, or threaten our being or our sense of self.
So how do we live with all? Knowing our imperfection and feeling our insecurities, how do we move toward greater peace within ourselves and as we move in the world? This is when it gets hard to be a Unitarian Universalist, because I don’t have a simple answer, nor do I think that one spiritual path will work for everyone. (Some of you saw that coming, I’m guessing.) All I can do is give you what I try to remind myself, in my own moments of need, and hope that it helps you as you find your way.
Be real. Don’t try to fain a collected perfection when it isn’t there. I recognize that there is a time and place for all things; maybe it’s not a good idea to be that vulnerable all or even most of the time, but make some time to be real – at least with yourself, and hopefully with a trusted confidante. Allow yourself to be the human being you are.
Be forgiving, of others but of yourself most of all. Understand that perfection is neither attainable nor desirable.
Be good to yourself. Ask yourself what you need, and try to find ways to meet those needs. It might be as simple as getting out of the house more, or listening to music, or sharing a meal lunch with friends. It might be a spiritual practice, or it might be the beginning of a life change. It could just be a break from working too hard. You are communicating with yourself, all the time. Listen, and pay attention.
Be loving. Be loving to the people around you, because love is the greatest spiritual practice there is, but also because all of us need love ourselves. I’m not talking about selfless sacrifice. There are times for that kind of love, but as my colleague Marta Valentínreminds us, sometimes it’s important to be self-ish. The love I’m talking about right now is mutual, and it is receiving as much as it is giving. Open yourself to the love that others give to you. They might not call it that. It might be just “hanging out.” It might be something else. Whatever you call it, be open to the human connection you need and the care that is offered you.
Look for the peace within. What centers you? Is it a connection with God or a divine reality? Is it a sense of place? Is it a spiritual practice? Is it quiet? Is it dance? Is it poetry? Is it math? Is it sitting by a fire on a winter afternoon? Is it building something? Is it being with other people or is it being alone? What feeds your spirit? Find and nurture that peace.
Finally, and maybe hardest of all – understand that you are a precious being. Within you, there is worth and power and goodness still waiting to be discovered. Within you, there is something sacred, because you are something sacred. Remember this; remind yourself of it, because you may not feel sacred much of the time, but you are a gift to life.
And life is more wonderful because you are in it.
May you a blessing to yourself,
and to all who surround you,
this day and every day.