Our Hardest Work in This World
The mystical poet Hafiz wrote “Our separation from God – from Love –
is the hardest work in this world.” I think Hafiz was onto something.
Mystical teachings tell us we can never truly be separate from the Absolute Reality of Love because the Absolute contains everything. Yet we create obstacles to Love. The most persistent obstacle I’ve observed is a sense of unworthiness. I have counseled numerous people who tell me they feel like “damaged goods,” and therefore believe they are unworthy of Love.
Another word for unworthiness is shame. Brene´ Brown, PhD states in a viral TED Talk, that shame thrives on three things: secrecy, silence, and judgment. We hide what we do not like about ourselves in the hopes that no one will see – or maybe it will just go away.
Dr. Brown also states that the one thing shame cannot tolerate is empathy. So in the spirit of dissolving secrecy and invoking empathy, I’ll share a story from my ministry that makes me look bad. I’m embarrassed to tell it – but here goes.
The Peace Song
I’ve asked many spiritual teachers, “What’s your biggest regret in terms of leadership?” Nine times out of ten, they say “The times I was unkind or impatient with someone.” Personally, I feel that I should be kind to everyone but when I was new in ministry I struggled with critics. I couldn’t always find the grace to recognize the person criticizing me as “Christ in a distressing disguise” (Mother Teresa). In the early days, I encountered a bounty of critics because I was clueless about running a church.
For example, we used to close the service with The Peace Song — “Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.” One day I blithely took it out of the service and replaced it with a song called Namaste (the divine in me blesses and honors the divine in you). I thought it was a great plan.
Not everyone was on-board with my abrupt brilliance. A woman came to my office to tell me that this was a bad decision. She launched into an angry tirade that led to a doctoral thesis on all my other failures as a minister. It was a blizzard of criticism.
I did consider the irony of someone yelling at me because of the Peace Song. I barely resisted the urge to go over the lyrics with her – “Let there be Peace on Earth and let it begin with your whiny-bad-ass-self.” I’m afraid I rolled my eyes several times and I’m sure I got defensive. Then as the tirade went on, I had a really bad thought.
Blunt Force Trauma
While rolling my eyes, I saw a prayer-stick sitting on my bookshelf. I had made it in a spiritual workshop. It was a thick piece of driftwood, twelve inches long, with a written prayer wrapped around it, decorated with bird feathers, ribbons and beads. I glanced at the prayer stick and in my head I heard the screechy music from Psycho. I had a fleeting visualization of the shower scene. I saw myself as a comical Norman-Bates-wanna-be, inflicting blunt force trauma with my prayer stick. It was in jest, I know I smirked as I thought of it, but that’s my confession. I creatively visualized whacking a congregant.
The conversation ended and we could not come to a resolution. She left feeling unheard and I felt ashamed. I wallowed in my office, wondering, “What is wrong with me? Why didn’t I have the skills to handle this confrontation in a loving way? What kind of a minster visualizes the Psycho shower scene?”
I looked at my wall and saw my pictures of Lord Krishna, and the Buddha, and the Blessed Virgin. I sighed and spoke out loud to them, “Do you think Billy-Freaking-Graham ever fantasized about bludgeoning his congregation?”
They stared at me in silence and I saw accusation in their eyes. Clearly, I did not deserve to be in the same room with them. Clearly, I was guilty of impersonating a spiritual leader.
The Perfection of Imperfection
I don’t know what changed – maybe it was Krishna, or the Buddha, or the Blessed Virgin, or maybe Grace itself – but suddenly something informed me that I was called to be a spiritual leader not because I am so perfect. I was called because I am so flawed.
All of us, not only ministers, are here to “learn to bear the beams of love” (William Blake). Unconditional love is only beautiful when there are conditions to overcome. So our shameful conditions, our imperfections, when held in Absolute truth are in reality a pathway to inner peace. Our shortcomings are a doorway to love beyond logic.
It’s a paradox that was a paradigm shift for me…
These days, I don’t get as much criticism as I used to, probably because now, on a good day, I know how to handle it. Of course it helps to listen, to express empathy, and to see the person before me as someone wearing a distressing disguise.
What helps more though, is to own my own shortcomings – to actually be present to my weaknesses and recognize that criticism can’t really undo me. If I acknowledge my “flawed abundance,” (Wayne Muller) I don’t have to become defensive. When I’m present to my humanity, my self-empathy extends to the critic before me. And somehow through willingness and grace, everything that was once “wrong” with me becomes part of what is “right” with me.
Call it humility, call it amazement, call it Love – a greater mind than ours placed each of us here to be painfully real, vulnerable, exposed, human, and divine. We are born to be simultaneously stressed and blessed. We are summoned to be full of crap and as deeply sincere as everyone else is. Together we stagger in astonishing ignorance, groaning in the excruciating joy of an existence too beautiful to behold. Now that’s a Peace Song. And so it is.
** Featured Image – Psychedelic Peace Sign by p.Gordon.
Questions to ponder and share responses if you like:
Have you ever experienced a moment of grace when you realized that what is “wrong” with you is part of what is “right” with you?
Is there any action you can take today to awaken to the fullness of both your humanity and your divinity?