Delivered at the South Nassau Unitarian Universalist Congregation

March 26, 2006

 “The Beauty of Imperfection”

Rev. Catherine Torpey

This morning, it is wonderful to have our neighbors from Garden City here to tell us a bit about their plans to make their facilities more accessible.

Most of you got the opportunity to meet my friend, Laurie Thomas, last week. If you were smart enough to come to Sunday morning worship, you got to hear her preach about what it means to be called and how we must all listen for our own callings. Laurie also gave the “Charge to the Minister” in the ordination and installation ceremony.

Many of you have told me how much you liked Laurie, how impressed you were with her and how much you would like to have her come here again. And yet, we are not equipped to be able to welcome her. For those of you who weren’t able to meet her, Laurie has cerebral palsy and so she uses a large motorized wheelchair. Our congregation president, Jean, and I were struck this weekend with how our lack of accessible bathroom facilities is not simply a lack of hospitality; but also by having barriers to participation, we ourselves are poorer; for Laurie cannot come back here—will not come back here—until we have accessible bathrooms.

Laurie is someone who has been a worker in the disability rights community for decades. One of the things that drives Laurie crazy (as someone with an obvious disability) is the assumption that somehow, she is not whole. There tends to be an assumption that her life is incomplete, her joy is incomplete. She told me, for instance, that she finds it infuriating when a person who cannot walk dies, and at the funeral, people say that the person is now dancing in heaven. What that communicates to her is that all that others seem to see is a lack, and that there is no recognition that the person with a disability is shaped by their experience of the disability. All of us are who we are because of all of the experiences of our lives, and because of all the gifts and challenges we have learned to manage. For Laurie, her life is simply her life. She has obstacles to deal with as much as any of us do. It is not her disability that makes her life difficult; it is society’s failure to construct buildings that allow her to participate fully.

I take the title of my sermon today, “The Beauty of Imperfection,” from one of the television episodes I’ll be taping tomorrow on the Hallmark Channel. Each time I’ve been on one of these programs, I get a phone call from them, they tell me a bit about their theme, and they ask me to brainstorm a bit on it. The first thing I said about the theme “The Beauty of Imperfection” was that it begins with a bias. To call anything an “imperfection” is to assume that it has a more perfect form. We look at someone who has an obvious physical impairment, and we might imagine that that person in a perfect form would not have those impairments. But, of course, perfection is an ever-elusive goal. Even those of us who do not have impairments that are readily identifiable certainly have things about ourselves that we are apt to criticize, or even hate ourselves for. It’s like the very common experience that Annie Lamott described in her book Traveling Mercies. We look in the mirror, literally or figuratively, and we see ourselves as measured against some perfect theoretical image. For Annie, her image of perfection was the former girlfriend of the man she had a crush on. That woman was young and beautiful, while to herself Annie looked old and dilapidated.

The teenaged years are a time when the pressure to live up to an imagined ideal can be so great as to crush the spirit day after day after day. The perfect teenager is good looking, has idyllic romantic relationships, is great in sports, makes good grades, has a huge group of cool friends, has the right body type, gets along with mom and dad and teachers, and yet isn’t a goody-two-shoes, but is respected by the Honor Society kids as well as the rebels. And when you’re a teenager, it feels like there really are kids who actually live up to this ideal. Those kids go to the cool parties and go on exciting vacations.

Those of us who have lived through the hazing ritual called adolescence can tell you two things: first, what is behind the façade of perfection is sometimes a great deal of imperfection being masked, desperately. And second, sometimes, it’s not that at all. For some people, much as the rest of us might hate it, other people do, apparently, have it all. Some people are blessed with brains, beauty, athletic bodies, a great family and the capacity to enjoy it all. And the rest of us have to either strive to bring all those things into our lives, or we must learn to love our lives the way they are—OR, we must learn the delicate balance of loving our lives and loving the striving as well.

And this, for me, is where prayer becomes essential. Just as Annie Lamott asked a little prayer to help her stupidity as she looked in the mirror wanting to cut out her eyes because what she saw was so hateful to her—just like Annie, those are moments where I ask for help, where I look outside myself to God or to other people for some guidance. Do I fight against the changes I see in the mirror, or do I let them be? How do I know when to strive for what I wish were true, and when to love what really is?

Angela Wood, an orthodox Jew from London, England, once told the story on a radio program about how she hated the Beatles song “Let it Be” when it first came out, even though she was a Beatles fan. “Letting anything be was the opposite of what I thought life was saying, of what I wanted to say about life,” Wood stated. “There were protests to be made, issues to stand up for, wrongs to be righted and all kinds of dragons to be slain. Letting things be would be soft and silly. It would mean you didn’t care or you’d given up. Perhaps I didn’t understand the song or perhaps I had a lot more growing up to do,” Wood continued, “but now ‘letting it be’ means feeling comfortable with who I am, and loving the world as it really is, as well as it should be. That’s how God loves,” she ends.

It is a profound affirmation of life when we can see not only the beauty in imperfection, but the perfection in imperfection. When I was about 19 years old, I took a pottery class. I remember three things from that potting class. First, creating a pot on a potter’s wheel is incredibly difficult; second, the clay mixed with water is referred to as slip and it feels icky and leaves your hands achingly dehydrated, and third, the instructor told us never to worry about the small imperfections that are almost inevitable on a pot. She gave the example of dipping a pot in glaze and accidentally leaving a fingerprint where you held the pot. She told us that those small imperfections are the evidence of the artist’s efforts. The inanimate object, the pot, has a creator, a human being whose intention, effort and love went into the making of the pot.

There’s a pop song called Treasure of You that I used to play for my students at the Convent of the Sacred Heart. The song tells the listener, “You are God’s treasure; you are the apple of God’s eye.” My favorite line in the song—the lyric I posted in my classroom at this Catholic high school—was “God loves the way he created you.”

The beauty and the strength of Unitarian Universalism is our radical declaration that you have been created just right. Exactly the way you are is exactly the way you were intended to be. Your sexual orientation, your physical abilities or disabilities, your talents and your weaknesses are honored here as the unique expression of human life that you are. This doesn’t mean that we don’t seek to fight for what we want and to make the changes that we believe are right. But it does mean that the “you” you bring to these struggles is welcome here.

This is the message of our Universalist forebears: we are saved; we are whole; we are beloved just exactly as we now are. We do not have to change or earn the right to heaven; it is ours.

The fear has always been that accepting ourselves as we are will mean failing to make efforts to make the world more just, or to improve our own lots in life. The Unitarians of the eighteenth century felt that the Universalist message of salvation without effort was a more dangerous and pernicious doctrine than the Calvinist message that nearly all are damned. If I am fine the way I am, then what could be my motive for striving? The answer, of course, is the distinction between who we are and what actions we choose to take.

We all have our imperfections. It is often difficult to know which parts of our personalities or habits that we don’t like are things we should try to change, and which are things we should learn to work with.

In the book The Song of the Bird by Anthony de Mello, we find the story of the dandelions. It seems that a man who took great pride in his lawn found himself with a large crop of dandelions. He tried every method he know to get rid of them. Still they plagued him. Finally he wrote the Department of Agriculture. He enumerated all the things he had tried and closed his letter with the question: “What shall I do now?” In due course, the reply came: “We suggest you learn to love them.”

I would contend that we don’t have to wait until we’ve tried to destroy something and had it resist our every effort in order to begin to love it. In the Nonviolent Communication classes on Saturday mornings, we talk about our efforts to have empathy both with other people and even with ourselves. Nonviolent Communication is just one of many paths to understand that it is being known and understood and loved for ourselves that is the best motivator for positive, loving behavior. In Chapter Eight of the book, Nonviolent Communication, the author quotes Carl Rogers, one of the twentieth century’s most important teachers of psychology. Rogers wrote, “When someone really hears you without passing judgement on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good.”

It feels damn good to love our imperfection. Whether yours is a physical imperfection or a personality imperfection—and chances are you feel you have some of both—no matter what your imperfection, it is like that fingerprint on that clay pot—evidence that you are not an inanimate object, but that you are the work of a creative force that does not seek to make each being an exact replica of the others.

When we enter into efforts such as the Welcoming Congregations program, or when we ourselves make our facilities fully wheelchair accessible, and especially when we affirm our commitment to our Unitarian Universalist faith tradition by helping our neighbors to become fully accessible, we are creating a community in which that old Universalist dream is continually being more fully realized. When I reach out to say, “I want you here just the way you are—with whatever disability you bring, with whatever sexual orientation or gender identification you bring, with whatever political viewpoint you bring, with whatever theology of God, or prayer, or life after death that you bring—when we reach out and embrace all of the variations of humanity that we find, we make a space where we, too, are ever freer to explore the truth of who we are, without reference to some imagined perfect “me” out there.

Seeing beauty in imperfection is the very heart of a universalist religion. And how do we demonstrate our love of one another, in all our variations? We do things like the Welcoming Congregations process. As Unitarian Universalists, we need to be on the forefront of inclusivity in all of our congregations.

And then, there is our own personal relationship with our own secret or not-so-secret imperfections. For some of us, seeing beauty in our own brokenness and weakness is a tall order. And that, in large part, is why we need this loving community of souls committed to a universal faith that can help you love even yourself.

May we have eyes that delight in beauty; the majesty of nature, the wonder of a smile. Let us glory in being together—just the way we are, with the thumb prints visible where the glaze was supposed to go.