We human beings are flawed. Imperfect.
Theologians, struggling to explain how a perfect God could create an imperfect creature ‘in his own image,’ came up with the interesting idea of ‘original sin.’
Adam, they said, was disobedient. God put him in paradise–a perfect world, where he could, according to the theologians, live forever; as long as he obeyed God’s single commandment: don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
Don’t ask why this all-knowing, all-powerful Creator didn’t have the good sense to realize that Adam wouldn’t be able to resist. As far as we know, it was the only tree from which he ate!
To answer this sticky question theologians came up with an answer: it was Eve who tempted Adam; and she in turn could point her finger at the serpent who, since he was wise, had already tasted the fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.
It’s an interesting piece of mythology.
For our purposes today it simply points to our flawed condition, as if anyone needed to be told that we human beings are flawed!
The fatal flaw, however, may be our inability to accept our faults, flaws and failures. Think about it.
In a recent conversation I asked a friend, “What, if anything, would you change about yourself or the people you love?”
I was surprised how quickly he answered. “I would have people-myself included-accept their limitations and their shortcomings.” Words to that effect.
Not long after that conversation I was asked to conduct a memorial service for a man who had attended services here with his family.
He had taken his own life, and there wasn’t a good explanation ‘why.’
I met with his widow who told me about him. In preparation for the service she brought a copy of his resume.
I was struck by the long list of successes in his life: an undergraduate degree from Harvard, magna cum laud, and doctorates in psychology and medicine from Princeton and Dartmouth.
He had a successful medical practice, then went into the business end of medicine, becoming CEO of a large HMO.
In what turned out to be the final months of his life, just after his 50th birthday, he was confronted with a few problems – which for all the world looked to him, apparently, like failures.
You remember, I’m sure, the story of the boy in the bubble. He had a problem with his immune system, so he had to be put in a germ-free environment.
I thought of the boy in the bubble as I looked at this man’s life.
At the risk of oversimplifying a very complex set of conditions which resulted in suicide-and it’s always complex, make no mistake about that–it seemed to me that he was like the boy in the bubble who couldn’t tolerate the common germs that you and I are sitting with in this room.
He had, it appeared to me, no tolerance for failure; no way to accept his own faults and flaws.
He had known remarkable success, by the world’s standards.
During the planning meetings with his widow she said, “You must tell this story,” referring to her late husband’s inability to accept failure.
I’d like to give two cheers for the doctrine of original sin. Maybe one cheer.
The theologians got it right in at least one way: the most basic thing you have to accept about yourself and one another is that you are not perfect.
You are flawed. Get it? Only God is perfect. You’re not. God is in charge. You’re not. One of God’s ‘functions’ is to take the hit for the imperfections in ‘His’ creation! That’s, in part, what the
mythology–all mythology–is about!
The acceptance of this fact–that we are all flawed–is fundamental to anything resembling a faith system.
Faith is, first of all, the ability to live without all the answers.
Faith is also the ability to live WITH personal flaws.
Just as pride is the deadliest of the seven deadly sins, so is humility the antidote.
Our failures are as important to us as our perceived successes.
Life’s inevitable tragedies are most difficult for those who have not had much experience with faults and failures.
There’s a paradox here, isn’t there?
Is it an oversimplification to suggest that faith is reinforced, at least, by imperfection, that we build tolerance for failure by having failure?
When I was in my mid-twenties, teaching at Wellesley High School, I had dinner with a student whose father was a senior executive for Ford. The next day I got a call from him-the Ford executive-asking if I’d be interesting in an executive training program at Ford. “We need young men like you,” he said.
I agreed and within a couple of weeks went to Dearborn, near Detroit, Ford’s town, to interview for this executive training program.
I spent the day and went home thinking about this career change, excited about the possibility of making a lot of money.
Within a few days I got a letter of rejection.
I had been more careful up to that point in my life to try for, or apply for, only things which I felt sure of getting.
This rejection hit me hard. At that point I did what men of my generation had been taught to do. I hid my feelings; I put on a good front.
I don’t think I told a single soul how I really felt.
I told people I didn’t like what I saw out there in Dearborn, that I was glad to have the opportunity to realize I’m not cut out to climb the corporate ladder.
Secretly I felt terrible. I felt that rejection as an utter failure. Inside I was miserable, and embarrassed-humilitated. It was one of the very few things I’d allowed myself to care about, but I wasn’t able to get.
This is the first time I’ve ever talked about this seemingly minor incident in my life. It wasn’t so minor.
I’ve had others, since. Most specifically, my divorce, about which I felt a deep sense of failure and shame.at first.
I won’t go on about those wounds, those and other faults, failures and disappointments–except to say that those wounds have become a blessing, since they gave me something essential.something having to do with basic survival.
William Hazlitt offers a warning here: “The confession of our failings is a thankless office. It savours less of sincerity or modesty than of ostentation. It seems as if we thought our weaknesses as good as other people’s virtues.”
I’ll say, simply, that standing at the graveside of a 50 year old man who seemed deprived of experiencing enough failure in his life, was a stark reminder of the value of our failures.of my own.and yours.
I was able to say a silent prayer of thanks for those wounds, those struggles, those times of humiliation which left a residue of humility.and the consequent ability to weather the storms which are
inevitable in this life.
As a brief footnote to my story about Ford’s executive training program, my student’s father had told me that if he didn’t make a vice presidency with the year he never would, since he was turning 50 and said, “If you don’t make it by then, you won’t make it.”
His son, my student, later became a Unitarian minister. We were in seminary at the same time! Strange world.
Edwin Arlington Robinson wrote a poem for a friend who took his own life. The poem is titled ‘Exit.’
For what we owe to other days,
Before we poisoned him with praise,
May we who shrank to find him weak
Remember that he cannot speak.
For envy that we may recall,
And for our faith before the fall,
May we who are alive be slow
To tell what we shall never know.
For penance he would not confess,
And for the fateful emptiness
Of early triumph undermined
May we now venture to be kind.
The poet seems to be suggesting that he and others who praised his friend somehow ‘poisoned’ him; the pride that resulted turned in on himself. It was fatal.
If you came here today to learn something about yourself, and about other people, or at least something to ponder, this is it: we are blessed by our failures.as long as we don’t get bogged down in them!
We’re trying to reach into the depths to see if we can understand what we need to understand.
If we don’t understand ourselves we won’t be able to accept ourselves, faults and all.flaws and all.
If we don’t understand ourselves-what makes us tick-we won’t understand others who we say we love; and if we don’t understand them and accept them for who and what they are, love is an empty, even offensive, word.
If our love has an emptiness at its core, then we are truly alone, and it can be, as the poet said, ‘a fateful emptiness of early triumph undermined.’
Isn’t that what Hamlet was saying in this famous soliloquy?
“To be or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more, and by sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep; perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Gives us pause.
Not long ago I read a book titled ‘The Spirituality of Imperfection.” The authors say:
“Spirituality helps us first to see, and then to understand, and eventually to accept the imperfection that lies at the very core of our human-being.”
We are flawed, and we suffer. We become competitive-there are only so many places at Harvard, and only one can be first in the class! There are only so many opening at the top–there’s only one CEO.
Competition is not all bad. But it’s not all good, either. It is simply built in to our nature. But that’s only one aspect of our nature.
It is also part of our nature to devote ourselves to those we love; and it is within our capacity to expand our love beyond blood or clan or ethnic group, or some particular religious group.
We’re here today to understand ourselves and one another and to come to terms with this thing we call our religion. For each of us, it’s a matter of understanding and of nurturing a faith system.
We’re here to try to make sense of life, to understand it on a deeper level, and to come to terms with death.
Those of us who have been turned down from the school we wanted, who didn’t get the job, whose first marriage crashed, or who hit bottom and knew it.we’re at a distinct advantage.
The words humility and humiliation are rooted in the word humus, which is earth.earthy.
But, more specifically, humus is “A brown or black organic substance consisting of partially or wholly decayed vegetable or animal matter that provides nutrients for plants and increases the ability of soil to retain water.”
“Decayed matter that provides nutrients and increases the ability of the soil to retain water.”
Earthy stuff. The earth – our home.
You know your faith system is in good shape when you feel at home here, on this earth, in the body you’ve been given, in the circumstances that have determined so much of your life.where you were born, and of whom; parents.siblings and other relatives.and so forth.
To feel at home is accept it: This is who I am, and if you’re to paint a portrait, paint warts and all, as Lincoln said.
Lincoln was a man who knew failure! His list of losses is legendary. He endured. He became stronger because of the losses: out of the faults and failures he built a faith system which endured.
The quality of our lives is not so much determined by what happens to us as it is determined by how we respond to what happens!
We can’t determine what will happen. But we can, to some degree at least, determine how we will respond.
Humpty Dumpty, being an egg, was shattered when he fell off the wall.
We mustn’t be so brittle! We must not crack under pressure. Our faults and failures, when accepted — and embraced – keep us from being so fragile.
Thank God for our imperfection!
Now I’m reminded of Whitman’s closing lines in his long, epic poem Song of Myself:
The spotted hawk swoops by and accuses me
He complains of my gab and my loitering.
I too am not a bit tamed. I too am untranslatable.
I sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world.
I depart as air, I shake my white locks at the runaway sun,
I effuse my flesh in eddies, and drift it in lacy jags.
I bequeath myself to the dirt to grow from the grass I love
If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.
You will hardly know who I am or what I mean,
But I shall be good health to you, nevertheless,
and filter and fiber your blood.
Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged,
Missing me one place, search another,
I stop, somewhere, waiting for you.