Not Exactly

[Sermon Preached at the UU Society of Wellesley Hills, April 2009]

I. Opening Reading: The Teaching Bean, by Elizabeth Tarbox

When I was a child my stepmother gave me and my sister each a lima bean. She showed us how to dampen some blotting paper and line a jam jar with it, and how to place the bean carefully between the blotting paper and the jar. She told us to stand the jars on the windowsill in our bedroom and keep the blotting paper wet, and watch to see what would happen.

A little later I took my bean out and polished it up with a bit of furniture polish. It was all shiny now and smelled much better than my sister's bean.

In a few days my sister's bean swelled and a strong white root pushed out of the bottom of the bean. My bean just sat there. A week later my sister's bean sprouted a green shoot that forced its way up and out of the top of the jar. My bean did nothing, but began to look wrinkly. In another week my sister's jar was full of roots and shoots and the bean was ready to be planted. My bean shriveled up and fell to the bottom of the jar and I threw it away.

How often have I covered things with furniture polish to make them shiny, to make them smell better? How often in my life have I cared more about the way things looked, and how they smelled, rather than how they really were? I spent half a lifetime covering my feelings with the emotional equivalent of furniture polish, thinking that if I looked good and smelled good the ache inside would go away.

But spirits are not like beans, thank god. They may shrivel with neglect, but as long as life persists there is the chance to wash off the polish and redeem the growing thing inside.

II. Sermon

I want to share with you a conversation that I had with my nephew when he was three years old. We were sitting at the dining room table when he turned to me and said, "Do you know what happened to my dream?"

"What happened?" I asked.

"It broke," he said. I was astounded.

"How did it break?" I asked.

He shrugged. "It was fragile," he said.

It was fragile. How many of our dreams, like my nephew's, are fragile? How many of our dreams break because they cannot stand up to the pressure of everyday life? I can think of one at least that doesn't hold up against reality well. The dream of being perfect. The dream of always having a shiny bean that looks and smells good. So why do so many of us hold on to such a fragile dream?

Maybe it is because in our Western culture, we are constantly being presented with images reflecting this fragile dream. Images held up as the standard bearers in our lives. Airbrushed models and fancy new cars. Women on TV who clean their homes with big smiles on their faces, and men who never cry.

Have any of you ever thumbed through the magazine Real Simple? I have been interested in simplicity for a while now, and even joined a simplicity circle one year at my church. So I was excited to see a magazine dedicated to the simple life. I was pretty disappointed. Diametrically opposed to the non consumerism I was striving for was page after page, spread after spread of perfect people living perfect lives in perfect houses with perfect matching pillows. One gorgeous couple I read about in this magazine had quit their jobs and moved to a house on a lavender farm which they styled after an English country cottage.

And this, the perfectly situated and decorated and coordinated lavender farm, is being lifted up as the model of a simple life. I'll admit, a lavender farm sounds wonderful! But how attainable is it? And to who? Why isn't there a feature article in Real Simple on wearing your pants twice before washing them? That's simple. And everyone can do it! It's not perfect though. Perfect people probably wash their pants every time, don't they?

No, we are supposed to be not simple, but simply perfect. We are supposed to be thin, agreeable, happy, beautiful people who always get back to every e-mail within the hour.

Even the protestant theology that some of us grew up with holds up the idea of perfecting ourselves as a way of getting closer to God. In this view, God is perfect also. But does that need to be our belief still? Does that need to be our dream for ourselves, fragile as it is?

I understand the pressure to be perfect. It's very real. The women, especially, in my family struggle mightily with perfectionism. My mother introduces herself as a "recovering perfectionist" and her friends tease her that she's not really there yet.

My sister, too, has historically had this tendency toward perfection. Once, when she was at my house and we were working on a scrap book for my mother's 60th birthday gift, my sister turned to me and asked me where I kept my T square. My what? But she was serious. In her mind, a T square was an essential tool of her precise and well aligned aesthetic. Somehow, though, it has just never made it onto my list of possessions. We were forced to do without.

But also in my family was the model of my grandmother on my father's side, whose highest praise was not it's "perfect," but rather it's "good enough." This was her response to us no matter what we brought her attention to…good grades, a watercolor picture we had painted, a life plan. If it was positive, it was "good enough." It used to infuriate me. I wanted to hear, I dreamed of hearing, "it's perfect."

So I, for one, could really use a magazine, or a theology even, whose message is that perfection is not the highest aim. Even my extremely precise sister has begun to see that there is a better message, and a healthier dream to have. Maybe it's having little kids, maybe it's surviving cancer, but her sights are now set not on perfection, but what is life giving, and what is good enough.

On Tuesday, I took my sister to Chelsea, where my friend Cat is a community organizer. Cat is trying to revive a community garden there, and I sort of offered my sister's skills as a landscape architect, thinking the two might connect over this exciting project. No one else in Cat's office is very enthusiastic about the garden project. Faced with the poverty, violence, and cultural barriers between neighbors that they are working to assuage, why bother with this patch of overgrown dirt nestled amidst the rusty skeletons of industrial buildings? In Cat's eyes, though, as in mine, a garden is not just a patch of earth. It is hope. And Cat has a lot of hope in this garden, which she hopes to transform this spring into something beautiful that will bring the community together. But it's a big project. Enormous.

I watched as my precise sister became Cat's mentor in simplicity. Why refurbish the whole garden, an overwhelming task without much help, when half the garden could more easily be transformed? Save the other half for when more people get excited. Why buy new lumber to replace the rotting, chemically treated railroad ties holding together the beds when the limited money available needs to be used just to cart the unhealthy wood away? People have been gardening in mounds of dirt for centuries. The roots of the newly planted beds will be protection enough from erosion. And are mulched walkways a necessity? No. The trampling of feet will do to maintain pathways for now.

I watched as Cat's dream of the perfect garden, a fragile dream in danger of breaking because of lack of support and resources, transformed into a more hearty dream of a good beginning for this garden. A dream that can be sustained and grown over time, but one that will not break under the pressure of perfect.

I stood by, speechless as my sister told Cat "Believe me, I understand about overachieving. But it's not always helpful. Sometimes it gets in the way of taking the next step. Just bite off what you can chew. You can do more later. It'll be ok."

"I think I need someone to tell me that every day," Cat said. "Can I call you?"

"Yes," said my sister. "Call me."

There are cultures in which perfection is not the ultimate aim. The Navajo Rug weavers, for example, have a tradition of always weaving a flaw into the corner of each rug. It is a reminder that, as humans, we are not perfect, and it's where the Spirit moves in and out of the rug. "Perfection," says Richard Rohr, "is not the elimination of imperfection. That's our Western either/or, need-to-control thinking. Perfection, rather, is the ability to incorporate imperfection!"

And in Japan, too, there is the idea of wabi sabi, the beauty of the imperfect. Robin Griggs Lawrence writes, "According to Japanese legend, a young man name Sen no Rikyu sought to learn the elaborate set of customs know as the Way of Tea. He went to tea-master Takeen Joo, who tested the younger man by asking him to tend the garden. [Sen no] Rikyu cleaned up debris and raked the ground until it was perfect, then scrutinized the immaculate garden. Before presenting his work to the master, he shook a cherry tree, causing a few flowers to spill randomly onto the ground." Wabi sabi. The beauty of the imperfect.

Rugs with a bit of color out of place, fallen blossoms on an immaculately cleared ground. Half a community garden tended with care and full of promise. Friends sharing real emotions and not just the shiny ones. I like this beauty so much better than the beauty of perfect. I wonder what we can do to make this our dream, instead of holding on to that fragile one?

Just to clarify, I'm not saying we should be lazy. I'm not saying we should accept all our faults and cease to work towards being better people, cease to work towards justice. But maybe there are some impossible standards that we're holding ourselves to that make us feel bad about ourselves. Dreams that could be put aside for sturdier ones…ones that help us to be less pretend and more ourselves. I'm asking if perhaps sometimes we are better people because we are not perfect.

Remember that the teaching bean, all polished and nice, shriveled and died. Our spiritual journey is not toward perfection, but toward what is life giving. We have each been given a bean, and it is ourselves. We can polish it up, make ourselves shiny and nice from the outside. But how much more life giving would it be to water ourselves so that we may open, that we may grow. We won't be safe inside our shiny polished coats, but we will be pushing our way out of the stifling expectation of perfection, unfurling in the warmth of acceptance, and growing into beanstalks.

Was this what we dreamed of? Not exactly. But it's good enough. And I'm starting to see the value in that.